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Electoral Insight - Election Legislation Enforcement

Electoral Insight – March 2003

Ellen Louks Fairclough
Canada's First Female Federal Cabinet Minister

Wayne Brown
Managing Editor, Electoral Insight,
Elections Canada

Ellen Fairclough was elected to the House of Commons five times and as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration introduced historic legislation giving Status Indians the right to vote in federal elections.
Ellen Fairclough was elected to the House of Commons
five times and as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration
introduced historic legislation giving Status Indians the
right to vote in federal elections.

The Rt. Hon. Ellen Louks Fairclough. The addition of the title "Rt. Hon." to her name may appear strange given that, in Canada, that title has normally been reserved for prime ministers, governors general and justices of the Supreme Court of Canada. And most of them have been men. However, on Canada Day in 1992, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed that title on Ellen Fairclough, almost 30 years after she left Parliament. It recognized her life of many achievements, the most notable being that she was the first woman to enter the federal Cabinet, on June 21, 1957. She was also elected to the House of Commons five times, a record unmatched by any other woman during the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, Fairclough was responsible for Indian Affairs when, in 1960, many Aboriginal Canadians were given the right to vote. In January 2003, she celebrated her 98th birthday.

The early years

She was born Ellen Louks Cook, in Hamilton, Ontario, on Saturday, January 28, 1905, the third of five children in a fifth-generation Canadian family. On her mother Nellie's side, she was descended from Huguenots and United Empire Loyalists who moved to Norfolk County from Vermont in 1790. Her paternal ancestors emigrated to Ancaster, Upper Canada, in 1802, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her father, Norman Ellsworth Cook, had farmed in Norfolk County, but the light soil did not produce sufficient crops and, in 1904, he moved his family to a house on the western edge of Hamilton. In her memoirs, Fairclough states, "Although we never went hungry, we were not an affluent family. Money was often hard to come by, especially when 'hard times' descended on Hamilton, which they seemed to do periodically." When Ellen was nine, the family could not even afford each child's school fees of 10 cents per month.

A life of long hours of work began early. When Ellen was 13, a flu epidemic swept the country. When most of her family fell ill, she was spared and, while caring for four very ill people, also had to prepare three meals a day for her father and two boarders, make beds, and give medication and other general nursing aid. She usually obtained high marks at school, but by today's standards did not receive a lot of formal education. Her family could not afford "collegiate," so instead she enrolled in a commercial studies program. Since taking a streetcar would cost five cents, she walked to school. She would learn secretarial work, which would pave the way for a series of bookkeeping jobs. Sundays consisted of morning attendance at Zion Methodist Church, bible study, Sunday school in the afternoon, playing the piano and singing but only religious music. In 1921, at the age of 16, at a church-related social function, she met Gordon Fairclough. Ten years later they would elope to marry in Buffalo, New York. Their only child, Howard, was born 10 months later.

In those years, Fairclough does not appear ever to have thought of someday trying to be elected to Parliament, but she did serve in the trenches of the Conservative Party. She and Gordon joined the Junior Conservative Club and she would become the president of the local Young Conservatives organization and vice-president of the Young Conservatives of Ontario.

During a 10-year period, Fairclough held many clerical and bookkeeping jobs. In Saturday's Child: Memoirs of Canada's First Female Cabinet Minister, Margaret Conrad has written that "Ellen was an ambitious and enthusiastic recruit to the new bureaucratic processes, increasingly making her mark by her ability to 'fix' people's muddled financial records." She took several correspondence courses and earned accreditation as a general accountant, making her part of a very male-dominated profession. Her accounting practice grew and she became the Secretary for the Canadian Wholesale Grocers' Association. Those duties included visits to Ottawa to meet departmental officials and members of Parliament.

Fairclough serves Hamilton

Photo: Special Collections, Hamilton Public Library
Ellen Fairclough at the 1959 opening of a model home
in Hamilton.

Fairclough's first attempt to win election was at the municipal level when, in 1945, Tony Evans, the local Tory boss, demanded she run for a seat on Hamilton's council. She firmly refused. Evans telephoned Fairclough's husband and announced to him that she was going to seek election. In her memoirs, Ellen says Gordon "thought this is a great idea, and that was that. Of course, I could have stubbornly resisted the 'call,' but I was actually quite intrigued by the possibility of a political career." Actually, she lost by a mere three votes and stated, "No one can ever tell me that a single vote does not count!" A few weeks later, when an alderman resigned, the council appointed Fairclough to the seat, which paid a salary of $400 per year. She was also active in a number of voluntary organizations as Dominion Secretary of the United Empire Loyalists' Association, Provincial Secretary and Vice-President of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) and a regional chair of the Zonta International women's group, which included members from American states and Canadian provinces.

A 1943 edition of the Fort William Daily News quotes a typical passage from one of the many speeches she made to groups across the province. "Why in these days of co-operation, are there no women in the legislature? Are women so insignificant that they have no desire to be heard? If women were in the legislature a lot of things that are dirty would be cleaned up, they wouldn't stand for them. Above all we must lend our courage and trust in a mass confidence in our ability to achieve."

Fairclough was re-elected three times to Hamilton's council and, in 1949, became the city's deputy mayor.

She loses and wins

A federal election was held in 1949 and Fairclough attempted her next step up the political ladder. She was unanimously nominated to be the Progressive Conservative candidate in the riding of Hamilton West. But she was running against a Liberal Cabinet minister, Colonel Colin Gibson, who had held the seat for almost a decade. Fairclough suspected party officials had encouraged her to run as a way of appealing to women voters and that, in fact, they saw no chance of a Conservative winning there. She lost by more than 3 000 votes and the Liberal party won the national election.

The following year, Colonel Gibson was appointed to the bench and a by-election was called. Fairclough soon discovered that someone was telephoning all the delegates to the nominating meeting to persuade them to vote for someone else to carry the party's banner. Fairclough believed the president of the local Progressive Conservative Women's Association was responsible, and that some local party officials did not want a female candidate. Regardless, most of the other women in the Association did support her and she defeated her male competitor by a count of more than three to one. In the by-election campaign itself, she claimed the Opposition in Ottawa needed to be strengthened and accused the Liberals of failing to implement universal old-age pensions and to reform unemployment insurance. On the election eve, Fairclough's campaign signs were covered by those of a competitor. Overnight, her supporters worked diligently to counter that effort, but by morning very few signs for either candidate were left standing. The May 15, 1950 ballot count seesawed all evening but, in the end, Fairclough, by a margin of just over 400 votes, became only the sixth woman in Canadian history to be elected to the House of Commons. She told Austin F. Cross of Canadian Business that her husband, Gordon, had given her great support. "He made more than half my (campaign) plans; had wonderful ideas about publicity."

Fairclough would be an Opposition member in the Commons and the only woman with a seat there in that session of Parliament. Her small pie-shaped fifth floor office was jammed in beside an elevator, but she was thankful that, unlike most of her male colleagues, she did not have to share space with another member. "In my early days in Ottawa I had more support from the men in my party than I did from the women. Many of the women, I think, questioned my ability to do the job, in part because they could not imagine themselves functioning in such a position." She was asked to serve as the Opposition spokesperson on labour, a good fit with her other duties as a member for a large, industrial city. Fairclough spoke frequently in the Commons and called for old-age pensions at the age of 65, rather than 70. However, some media commentators were more interested in her clothing and personal life than in what she said about policy. Undaunted, she introduced a private member's bill to require equal pay for equal work in areas under federal jurisdiction. During her second term in Parliament, after the 1953 general election, the Government enacted similar legislation. The media gave Fairclough much of the credit.

Fairclough enters Cabinet

In 1957, following a general election, Ellen Fairclough became the first woman in Canada's history to be sworn into the federal Cabinet, but it almost didn't happen. John Diefenbaker took power as the Prime Minister of a minority Progressive Conservative government. He had pledged to appoint a woman to the Cabinet. He had only two in his caucus to choose from and Fairclough had the longer service and committee experience. In Saturday's Child, Fairclough recalls her belief that Diefenbaker did not like her. "He also had not forgiven me for refusing to support him in his bids for party leadership in 1942, 1948 and 1956."

A few days after the June election, one of those Diefenbaker was likely to include in his Cabinet, Dr. William Blair, died. "At the cemetery, Diefenbaker motioned with his head for me to come over to his side," she has stated. "He asked me if I could see him later in the day. I said, 'Yes, when?' We finally decided upon 6:00 p.m., in his office. I was there on time but he kept me waiting while various people, mostly members of his staff, ran in and out of his private office." A half-hour later, Diefenbaker told her, "I have to form a Cabinet, and it looks as if I shall have to form it largely of my enemies." Fairclough has said she then denied his accusation she had supported one of his rivals at their party's leadership convention. She promised the complete loyalty Diefenbaker requested and he told Fairclough she could be the Secretary of State in his Cabinet.

Fairclough was surprised because she had expected a weightier portfolio. Her first inclination was to turn him down but, instead, left Diefenbaker with only a commitment to let him know her answer. George Drew, a former Ontario premier and Diefenbaker's predecessor as leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, then counselled her not to reject the chance to become the first woman minister in the federal Cabinet. The next day, she accepted Diefenbaker's offer. However, as Mary Lowrey Ross wrote several months later in Saturday Night magazine, "There have been a few to point out that the Secretary of State position is a minor Cabinet appointment and hardly adequate to Mrs. Fairclough's talents."

On June 21, 1957, Fairclough was sworn into Cabinet. Canada's 90th birthday was just a few days away and she was surprised to discover no celebration was planned for Parliament Hill on July 1. She was told any festivities would be poorly attended because local residents would be at their cottages or vacationing elsewhere. Fairclough would not accept that explanation and ordered planning to begin for the first Dominion Day celebrations in front of the Parliament Buildings the next year.

She recalls that pressure for a distinctive Canadian flag was also on the rise, with thousands of suggestions coming in from across the country. "The designs came in all sizes and colours and ran the gamut from childish scribbles on scrap paper to a beautifully embroidered white satin effort. I recall taking some of them with me on speaking engagements." However, the Diefenbaker government would fall from power before a new flag was chosen.

As official Ottawa got used to having a female Cabinet minister, her husband Gordon became accustomed to often being the only male among the spouses of ministers at social events. He enthusiastically took part, providing more examples of the full support he always gave her.

At Citizenship and Immigration

Photo: Special Collections, Hamilton Public Library
Ellen Fairclough was sworn into Cabinet as
the Secretary of State, on June 21, 1957.
She is pictured here with the Great Seal of
Canada used on all state documents for
authority and authenticity.

In the 1958 general election, the Progressive Conservatives won the largest majority in Canadian history (208 of 265 seats). Fairclough was very easily re-elected and appointed to the much tougher post of Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. In those days the position included responsibility for the Royal Canadian Mint, the National Film Board, the National Gallery and the Public Archives/National Library.

Indian Affairs was also under Fairclough's jurisdiction and, in 1960, she introduced the historic legislation giving Status Indians the right to vote in federal elections. In a 1973 interview with Peter Stursberg, she said "I think that was long overdue and I was very happy that it happened in my time." She went on to state, "Although some Native leaders feared that enfranchisement was a device to undermine their treaty rights, I made it very clear that this was not the case. No Indian, or any Canadian, is forced to vote, but it is a privilege that every Canadian citizen has a right to exercise." She has estimated that, as Minister, she visited as many as 100 Native reserves in Canada. Fairclough would later receive many honours from Aboriginal groups, including the Six Nations Indian Band. The Blackfoot made her an honorary chief.

Fairclough has written that, while in politics, her colleagues usually treated her as just "one of the boys," but on one occasion she was excluded from Cabinet. Ministers were reviewing the case of Stephen Truscott, who had been convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl. Fairclough obeyed Diefenbaker's request that she leave the room, rather than see graphic photos of the deceased.

Fairclough brought in reforms in immigration policy to try to eliminate race and ethnic origin as grounds for discrimination. But the intense controversy that accompanied post-war immigration policy and pressure from the Opposition, media and the public often left her close to resigning. "However, I had my personal staff to consider, all of whom would have been out of a job if I quit. Moreover, I knew that if I threw in the towel, the criticism would have been levelled at all women 'She couldn't take it.'" Instead, she "stuck it out to the bitter end."

The end was very difficult. The Government devalued the Canadian dollar to 92 cents American, which was not well received by many voters. In the 1962 election, Fairclough was re-elected, but the Progressive Conservatives won only enough seats for a weak minority government. Fairclough was moved to the Postmaster General's portfolio. The Cuban missile crisis erupted and the Cabinet was divided on how to respond to American calls for support and on whether Canada's new weapons system would include nulear warheads. Some ministers were thought to be plotting to oust Diefenbaker, and his government was defeated in a vote in the House of Commons.

Fairclough asked Diefenbaker for an appointment to the Senate. "Despite being the first female Cabinet minister, I was not to be one of the chosen few," she has written. On April 8, 1963, another general election brought the Liberals to power and Fairclough was personally defeated by 2 800 votes.

Life after Ottawa

"At the age of 58, most people begin to think of retirement, but not Ellen Fairclough," wrote Margaret Conrad. As Corporate Secretary, "she helped make Hamilton Trust and Savings Corporation into a force to be reckoned with in Ontario financial circles and continued her active involvement in a wide range of boards, foundations and voluntary organizations." She also chaired Hamilton Hydro and served as treasurer of Zonta International.

On February 20, 1978, the House of Commons unanimously passed a resolution congratulating Fairclough for "the significant contribution she made to Canadian political life, for being, 20 years ago today, the only woman in Canadian political history to serve as Acting Prime Minister." The latter refers to a very brief period Diefenbaker left her in charge of the Government while he was travelling.

In the introduction to Fairclough's memoirs, Margaret Conrad recalls, in 1993, she was watching the Progressive Conservative Party's leadership convention and saw the 88-year-old Fairclough move the nomination of Kim Campbell, who would become the country's first female prime minister. She regarded Fairclough's life as an untold story and the next day asked Fairclough if she could write her biography. "She replied immediately. Not only was she prepared, without having met me, to let me be her biographer; she had a 75 000-word memoir that would speed my progress." In 1995, those memoirs were published and Fairclough was installed as a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Ellen Louks Fairclough never saw herself as an ardent feminist but always believed that women could contribute more to business and political life. She proved it with her own career. "Although I never started out to be the 'first' anything, it turned out that I was the first woman in many areas of public life," she has stated. "There were not many others to follow, so I just followed my own instincts. These served me pretty well over the years, as did my willingness 'to work hard for a living.' And when all is said and done, it has been a pretty satisfying life."


Canadian Who's Who, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Conrad, Margaret. "Not a Feminist, But ... The Political Career of Ellen Louks Fairclough, Canada's First Female Cabinet Minister." Journal of Canadian Studies. Vol. 31, No. 2 (Summer 1996).

Cross, Austin F. "Parliamentary Personalities." Canadian Business. Vol. 23, No. 9 (September 1950), pp. 94, 106110.

Ellen Fairclough interview by Peter Stursberg, March 9, 1973.

Fairclough, Ellen Louks. Saturday's Child: Memoirs of Canada's First Female Cabinet Minister. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995, 179 pages.

Ottawa Public Library, Biography Resource Centre.

Ross, Mary Lowrey. "Ellen Fairclough: First Woman in the Cabinet." Saturday Night. Vol. 72, No. 18 (August 31, 1957), pp. 1415, 34.

The Hon. Ellen Louks Fairclough. Word Affairs. Vol. 24, No. 3 (November 1958), p. 13.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.