A Free, Public Library

30 April 1906

While libraries have existed since the emergence of writing in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt more than four thousand years ago, free, public libraries are a recent phenomenon, dating back only to the nineteenth century. Previously, libraries were the preserve of the Church, kings and wealthy private citizens—the small minority who were literate and had the resources to afford books. Mass education was viewed by elites with suspicion. It might lead people to question their station in life. In a largely agrarian society, knowing how to plough fields, grow crops, and raise livestock were deemed far more important skills for the common person than reading and writing.

Ideas became to shift during the industrial revolution. Social reformers started to advocate in favour of educating workers in order to advance science and reduce superstition. Increasingly, an educated workforce was seen as an economic blessing rather than a social curse. With thousands of men and women pouring into the cities seeking employment in those “dark satanic mills,” the Church and temperance supporters hoped that edifying lectures and libraries would reduce crime, and keep people out of bars and brothels during their (limited) time off. Starting from the early nineteenth century, mechanics’ institutes and literary and philosophical societies, often sponsored by wealthy industrialists, began popping up in the major cities of Britain. These institutions provided lectures on scientific subjects to their members, typically industrial workers and clerks, who could join for a small fee. They also operated libraries and reading rooms for the benefit of their members. In Britain, the Museums Act of 1845 allowed boroughs to raise funds to support museums and libraries for the edification of the general public.

Similar developments took place in Bytown, later Ottawa, albeit with a lag. Calls for a library to be established in Bytown started as early as 1837. Four years later, a small, circulating library opened for subscribers out of the offices of Alexander Gray, a jeweller and bookseller. Unfortunately, it apparently failed after only one year. In 1847, the Bytown Mechanics’ Institute was founded by the town’s leading citizens. In addition to uplifting educational lectures, the Institute provided a library for its members. Drawing principally upon the English-speaking community, the Institute was unable to attract sufficient members, and quickly became inactive. It was, however, revived in 1853 as the Bytown Mechanics’ Institute and Athenaeum (BMIA). Area Francophones established their own cultural institution, l’Institut canadien français d’Ottawa in 1852 that still exists today.

The new BMIA, which received an annual grant from the provincial government, did better than its antecedent. It too provided lectures, classes, a reading room and a small circulating library for its members initially out of the basement of the Congregational Church located near Sappers’ Bridge. By 1856, BMIA had a library of roughly 1,000 volumes, mostly academic works though there were a few novels as well. It also subscribed to British, French and American newspapers, journals and periodicals. In 1869, the BMIA merged with the Ottawa Natural History Society to form the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society (OLSS). While the new organization continued to offer classes, held lectures, and maintained a growing library, its membership was drawn largely from the ranks of civil servants and industrialists rather than mill workers and labourers. Although a fine Parliamentary Library also existed in Ottawa, its use was also largely confined to the town’s elite rather than the working poor.

In 1882, the Ontario Government passed the Free Libraries Act, allowing municipalities to establish public libraries funded out of local taxes with the assent of the ratepayers. A number of cities across the province, including Toronto, took advantage of this new legislation and established public libraries for their citizens. In these cases, the libraries of local mechanics’ institutions were transferred to the new municipally-run libraries. In Ottawa, however, the new legislation had little impact.

During the early 1890s, the Ottawa Council of Women began to lobby for the establishment of a free library in the Capital. In February 1895, the Council, chaired by Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, issued the following statement:

“Whereas the Local Council of Women of Ottawa feel that the establishment of a Free Library would be a benefit to the city, resolved: That this Council recommend that the subject be brought prominently before the public through the medium of the press and that a petition to the city council in accordance with the terms of the Free Libraries Act, be prepared for circulation by the Women’s Council.”

perley-building-topley-studio-fondslibrary-and-archives-canadapa-027381

The Perley mansion at 415 Wellington St was offered to the City as a home for a public library in 1896. Topley Studio Fonds/Library & Archives Canada, PA-027381.

In March 1885, the Council of Women submitted its petition to the city with 280 signatures (almost triple the number required by law). The city then prepared a draft by-law establishing a free library to be voted on by Ottawa ratepayers at the upcoming municipal elections. Ratepayers consisted of men over 21 years of age who owned property in excess of $400. Single women and widows who met the property requirement could also vote.  The Council of Women then launched an advertising campaign in support of a free library. With the support of Philip Ross, the editor of The Evening Journal, the Council of Woman published the “Woman’s Edition” of the newspaper in April 1895, with all profits of the edition going to a fund for the free library. In this edition, all the articles, stories and letters were written and edited by women. Front and centre were articles in support of a free library. The movement got a further boost when the heirs of William Perley, a lumber baron, offered the Perely mansion on Wellington Street as home for the new library.

However, the efforts of the women came up short. In the vote held in January 1896, the city’s eight wards all decisively turned down the idea of a public library, with the popular vote 1,958 for and 3,429 against. It seemed that cost of running a library, estimated at about $10,000 per year, was too steep for ratepayers. Instead of becoming a library, the Perley mansion became “The Perley Home for Incurables” until the land was expropriated by the Dominion government in 1912. (In the long run, the location did become a library; the site is now the home of Library and Archives Canada.)

The Council of Women did not give up, and continued to press the issue at city council. But councilmen, while supporting the idea of a free library, collectively continued to reject the idea as being too costly. In 1899, a draft by-law was defeated on second reading on a vote of 13-11. By the early 1900s, with over 400 public libraries in Ontario, Ottawa was looking decidedly backward.

carnegie-theodore-c-marceaulibraryofcongress

Andrew Carnegie, 1835-1919, Theodore C. Moreau, Library of Congress

Salvation came from the United States. In 1901, Otto Klotz, past president of the OLSS and husband of Marie Klotz who was a leading light in the Ottawa Council of Women’s fight for a public library, wrote Andrew Carnegie, the prominent, Scottish-born, American philanthropist for funds to build a free, public library in Ottawa. The day after Klotz sent his letter, Ottawa mayor W. D. Morris also petitioned Carnegie for funds. By this point, Carnegie had funded hundreds of libraries throughout the United States, Canada, and Britain. Within weeks of receiving the letters, Carnegie pledged $100,000 to pay for an Ottawa Public Library, if Ottawa found a site and if it would agree to spend not less than $7,500 per year in upkeep.

It took several years, however, to bring this about. First, the city hoped that the Dominion government would supply land for the library. When that didn’t happen, city council purchased a site at the corner of Laurier Avenue (then called Maria Street) and Metcalfe Street. Second, it took time to select the design by architect E. L. Horwood out of eleven plans submitted. Third, the project was almost derailed following publication of Carnegie’s views that the United States should annex Canada. But work proceeded. In 1905, council approved $15,000 for the purchase of books, of which $3,500 was spent on French books. Lawrence Burpee, former clerk at the Department of Justice, was selected as Librarian. In turn, Burpee hired an assistant librarian, a cataloguer, three assistants for the circulation desk, and a caretaker. To help expedite the huge task of cataloguing books, Burpee purchased ready-made index cards at a penny a card from the U.S. Library of Congress.

carnegie-library-canada-dept-of-mines-and-technical-surveyslibrary-and-archives-canadapa-023297

The Carnegie Library. Notice the stained glass window above the entrance, and the words “Ottawa Public Library” in raised letters on the lintel. Department of Mines and Technical Surveys/Library and Archives Canada, PA-023297.

Opening day was Monday, 30 April 1906. Carnegie himself was there for the big event. It was the great industrialist and philanthropist’s first visit to Canada. He came the day before via Toronto, where he had given a speech at the Canadian Club. He was met at the train station by Sir Sandford Fleming and the U.S. Consul General who conveyed him to Government House where he stayed on his short trip to Ottawa. The evening before the official opening, Carnegie was the guest of honour at a formal dinner at the Russell House Hotel. With the prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, at his side, Carnegie spoke extemporaneously about the union of English-speaking countries, especially the United States and Canada—his favourite hobby horse. Calling himself as a “race imperialist,” he dubbed Canada “the Scotland of America,” and disingenuously envisaged Canada annexing her southern neighbour, just as Scotland had “annexed” England, and “afterwards boss it for its own good, as Scotland did also.” [James VI of Scotland became James I of England at the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.] He also praised Laurier for maintaining Canada’s fiscal independence [from Britain] and for not being swept into the vortex of militarism [a dig at the British who were engaged in an arms’ race with Germany]. Despite Carnegie’s annexationist and racial views, Laurier replied graciously saying that he too was a “race imperialist,” and opined that the separation of England from her American colonies had been a “crime,” and hoped for re-union. He added that had he “not been born of French parentage, there was nothing he would have rather been than a Scot.”

For the official opening the next afternoon, the classical, four-storey library building was clad in Union Jacks, the Stars and Stripes and colourful bunting. Constructed at a cost of slightly less than $100,000, the building was made of Indiana sandstone. The central main entrance was bracketed by four Corinthian columns, two on either side. Above the entrance was a large stained glass window that featured famous authors—William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Thomas Moore, Walter Scott, Lord Tennyson, and the Canadian Confederation poet Archibald Lampman. Overhead, on the lintel of the building, was inscribed the words “Ottawa Public Library” in raised letters. For the official opening, these words were hidden by bunting to avoid embarrassment as the official name of the building was “The Carnegie Library,” a name used by the Ottawa Public Library into the 1950s.

carnegie-library-interior-william-james-topleylibrary-and-archives-canadapa-009086

Interior of The Carnegie Library looking towards the main entrance, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-009086.

The building’s interior walls were clad in Italian marble with beautiful red oak wooden flooring and wainscoting. In front of the entrance hung a portrait of Carnegie painted by Miss V. Fréchette, the daughter of Achille Fréchette the translator of the House of Commons, and Annie Howells Fréchette who edited the “Woman’s Edition” of The Evening Journal in 1895. The basement held classrooms, a newspaper room, a furnace room and the caretaker’s quarters. The ground floor was devoted to reading rooms to the right and left of the large lobby, the librarian’s offices, the stack room as well as the circulation desks. A marble and bronze staircase led upstairs to boardrooms, a reference department, a lecture room for 125 persons, staff offices, and a cloakroom.

After the customary welcoming speeches, Carnegie thanked the city and praised it for constructing such a fine building. He then reprised his speech on “race imperialism.” On a tour of the facilities, Carnegie was “waylaid” by a delegation of the St Andrew’s Society who gave the philanthropist an honorary membership to the Sons of Scotland of Canada. After the ceremonies, Carnegie left by train for Montreal, where he was granted an honorary degree at McGill University, and gave yet another speech on race imperialism before returning to New York.

The Carnegie Library was a great success. By the end of 1907, almost 20,000 library cards had been handed out, with an annual circulation of 129,000 books. So successful was it that the old Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society closed for good, its members flocking to the free services provided by the city. Before long, strong demand for the Library led to the establishment of branch operations. In 1916, Carnegie donated an additional $15,000 to build a western branch on Rosemount Avenue. It opened in 1919. This donation was the last Carnegie gave to Canada. He died in 1919 at the age of 83.

carnegie-columns

Columns salvaged from The Carnegie Library, Rockcliffe Rockeries, 2016, by Nicolle Melanson-Powell

By the 1960s, the downtown Carnegie library was showing signs of age. Serious cracks had opened up in its walls and ceilings under the weight of the books it contained. In a time when little thought was given to heritage considerations, the beautiful, classic structure was demolished in 1971, a year after the gracious Capitol Theatre also succumbed to the wrecking ball. It was replaced by the current, Brutalist style, concrete building that was completed in 1974. The only thing retained from the old building was the stained glass window. The Library’s Corinthian columns were also saved and were reused as a “folly” in the Rockcliffe Rockeries.

Today, things have gone full circle. Plans are afoot to replace the current central library at 140 Metcalfe Street. Also, the aging Rosemount Branch, built a century ago using a Carnegie donation, is too small for current needs. Its future is now in doubt.

Sources:

Bytown Gazette & Ottawa Advertiser (The), 1841, “Circulating Library,” 9 December.

Carnegie Library (The), 1908. 3rd Report, Ottawa: The Ottawa Printing Co. (Limited).

Evening Journal (The), 1895, “Women In Council,” 4 February.

—————————, 1895. “Woman’s Edition,” 13 April.

—————————, 1895, “Free Library Law,”19 December.

—————————, 1896. “Just the Place,” 4 January.

—————————, 1896. “All Jumped On,” 7 January.

—————————, 1899. Free Library By-Law Killed, 5 December.

—————————, 1901. “Free Public Library for City of Ottawa, Carnegie to donate $100,000,” 11 March.

—————————, 1906. “The Program In Ottawa,” 28 April.

—————————, 1906. “The Carnegie Library,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Carnegie Library Formally Opened,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Reception of Library King,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Ceremonies at the Opening,” 1 May.

—————————, 1967. “Old Library to Come Down,” 21 November.

—————————, 1969. “Funds, Weather, Moon Shot Blames for Library Woes,” 12

September.

————————–, 1970. “Library Cracks Up,” 8 August.

—————————, 1971. “Old Building Wrecked by Cohen’s, 24 September.

—————————, 1974. “Salute to the New Central Ottawa Public Library,” 8 May.

Gaizauskas, Barbara, 1990. Feed The Flame: A Natural History of The Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society, Carleton University, M.A. Thesis, https://curve.carleton.ca/b81c434b-04c8-4886-9c97-cfc1a560ff51.

Jenkins, Phil, 2002. The Library Book: An Overdue History of the Ottawa Public Library, 1906-2001, Ottawa: Ottawa Public Library.

Rush, Anita, 1981. The Establishment of Ottawa’s Public Library, Carleton University.

Urbsite, 2012. Unforgotten Ottawa, The Carnegie Library, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2012/09/unforgotten-ottawa-carnegie-library.html?q=Carnegie+library.

 

 

 

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The Evening Journal — Woman’s Edition

13 April 1895

Prior to the twentieth century, women in Canada, and indeed throughout most of the world, had few political, economic or social rights. Typically, women went directly from the jurisdiction of their fathers to that of their husbands. They had little control over property, income, children, or their own bodies. Women were denied the franchise, banned from most professions, and were often forbidden university-level education. A woman’s place in society was limited to caring for her husband, raising a family and managing the household. Few married women were in the paid labour force. If a single woman was forced by poverty to seek out paid employment, she was confined to occupations that were extensions of home life—carrying for children, sick, or elderly, or being a seamstress, or a house maid. Teaching was also acceptable. Once married, however, a woman was expected to resign her position so that she could devote her time to wifely duties. In 1901, only 14 per cent of Canadian women were in the paid labour force, many earning only a pittance, much less than their male counterparts doing the same work, a rationale being that a man had a family to support whereas a woman had only herself.

However, during the later decades of the nineteenth century, Canadian women began to organize and agitated for change. They challenged the widely-held belief that it was ordained by God that a woman’s place was in the home. They also rejected the paternalistic notion that they were the weaker sex, who must be sheltered from the hurly burly of politics, or worse did not have the intellectual capacity to work in the professions. But change came slowly in Canada, and when it did it came in small steps. In 1872, the Married Women’s Property Act gave married women the right to their own wages. Three years later, Dr Jennie Trout became the first woman to be licensed to practise medicine in Ontario. In 1876, Toronto women formed the Women’s Literary Society with a covert aim of obtaining equal rights; it later was transformed into the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association.  The Young Women’s Christian Association and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were also formed during the 1870s, with a mission, among other things, to improve the lot of women. In 1884, Ontario granted married women the right to own and dispose of their own property without the consent of their husbands. In 1889, the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association grouped local suffrage groups into a national body, giving them more political clout. In 1893, Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General at that time and an early feminist, formed the National Council of Women in Canada to improve the status of women. The Council’s initial efforts focussed on women immigrants, factory workers and prisoners. In 1895, the Law Society of Upper Canada agreed to admit women as barristers.

Female suffrage was still a dream, however. In June 1895, the House of Commons debated votes for women…and thoroughly rejected such an outlandish idea. One Member of Parliament, Flavien Dupont, expressed the prevailing sentiment of the time. He argued against throwing “upon woman’s shoulders one of the heaviest burdens that bears on those of men, the burden of politics, the burden of electoral contests, the burdens of representation.” He contended “To invite the fair sex to take part in our political contests seems to me to be as humiliating and as shocking a proposition as to invite her to form part of our militia battalions.” Women over 21 years of age had to wait until 1917 to be enfranchised in Ontario, and until 1918 to be able to vote in federal elections.

Against this backdrop, the Ottawa Evening Journal ran a unique edition on Saturday, 13 April 1885—an all-women production of the newspaper. For that one day, Ottawa women assumed all the responsibilities, including managing, editing and reporting, necessary for producing a newspaper. While a number of women had bee personally asked to contribute articles, the management of the newspaper invited the ladies of Ottawa to submit stories of up to 600 words-“an opportunity for feminine Ottawa to ventilate her ‘fads and fancies.'” The Editor for the day was Annie Howells Fréchette of 87 McKay Street, New Edinburgh. Fréchette was a poet and the author of many magazine articles, some of which were published in Harper’s Magazine. She was also the wife of the translator for the House of Commons. The Managing Editor was Mary McKay Scott, while the News Editor was Ellie Cronin. The Journal’s office boy was “the only person of the male persuasion” who assisted in the newspaper’s production. Female reporters selected and edited international stories that came in over the newswires, as well as covered local newsworthy events, including sports. Instead of a “Woman’s” column, a common feature in newspapers of the age, a “Gentleman’s” column appeared. Women also solicited advertisements from area businesses, and all letters to the Editor were written by women.

womans-edition

The Evening Journal — Woman’s Edition, 13 April 1895

This special edition of The Evening Journal was in support of the creation of a “Free” or Public Library in Ottawa. At that time, library resources in the Capital was essentially limited to the Parliamentary Library, the University of Ottawa library and the library of the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society (OLSS).  The OLSS, which had a small, circulating collection of roughly 3,100 volumes in 1895, was funded by Society members and an annual grant from the Ontario government. The Ottawa Council of Women, founded by Lady Aberdeen, together with women’s church groups and other charities, were the principal advocate of a free Ottawa Library that would be open to all. The special newspaper edition was a way of rallying support for the initiative. More tangibly, the profits from the issue would form the nucleus of a library fund. Library supporters hoped that others would contribute and, in time, lead to a grant from the City that would fund a Public Library.

Given the purpose of the special, twenty-page, newspaper edition, there was an extensive front-page article making the case for a free, public library in Ottawa. Three principal motivations were outlined: a way of uplifting men and women to a higher plane; a means of securing greater remuneration for work; and a way to form better citizens, thereby adding to the advancement and stability of the state. A public library was viewed as an extension of the school system—a “peoples’ university where “rich and poor, old and young, may drink at its inexhaustible fountain.”

Besides articles in support of an Ottawa library, there was an array of fascinating news stories, both national and international, that emphasized women. One article titled La Penetenciaria featured a hard-hitting report on an Ottawa lady’s visit to a Mexican state prison in Guadalajara. Other story focussed on Canadian women in poetry. Front and centre was Emily Pauline Johnson, the daughter of a Mohawk hereditary chief and an English mother. Johnson’s poem “In Sunset” was published. Johnson is recognized today as one of Canada’s leading poets of the nineteenth century. Others profiled included Ethelwyn Wetherald, author and journalist at The Globe newspaper in Toronto, who wrote under the nom de plume Bel Thistlewaite, and Agnes Maule Machar. As well as being an early feminist, Machar wrote about Christianity and Darwinism, arguing that Christians should accept evolution as part of God’s divine plan.

Others stories had a more domestic focus. One provided tips on how to deal with servants: “If the mistress wishes her household machinery to run smoothly, give her orders for the day immediately after breakfast.” In turn, servants were advised never to “put white handled knives into hot water, and to “cleanse the sink with concentrated lye at least once a day.” In the light-hearted “Gentlemen’s Column,” “matters pertaining to the sterner sex” were dealt with, including “men’s rights, and, “the age when a man ceases to be attractive.” Regarding the former, the columnist thought that men looked after their own rights and the needs of their own sex far better than did women, “because they probably know more about them.” As for the latter issue, she thought that there was no definite conclusion.

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Lady Aberdeen, Wife of Canada’s  Governor General, 1893-1898, prominent early feminist and contributor to the “Woman’s Edition of The Evening Journal, Library & Archives Canada, PA-22760.

Notable women in the Ottawa community also contributed articles to the special newspaper edition. Lady Aberdeen wrote a lengthy column about what “society girls” might do. She opined that “service is the solution of the problem of life.” In Experimental Farm Notes, Mrs William Saunders, the wife of the director of Ottawa’s Experimental Farm, described life on the Farm, and wrote about what the visitor could see in April, which included a “good display of early spring flowering bulbs.” Mrs Alexander, the Assistant Librarian at the Geological Museum, located at the Geological Survey at the corner of Sussex Avenue and George Street, wrote about the many treasures to be found there. In addition to an extensive collection of rocks and minerals, there were botanical, entomological exhibits as well as a collection of birds and mammals. A range of “Indian relics” were also on display from western Ontario, Yukon and the Queen Charlotte Islands, including a sacrificial stone of the Blackfoot Indians, also known as the Niitsitapi, presented to the Geological Survey by the Marquis of Lorne, a previous Governor General. The Geological Museum later became known as the Canadian Museum of Nature.

The most fascinating stories deal with women’s rights, providing a glimpse of the state of play at that time, and the aspirations of Canadian women in the late nineteenth century. There were at least two references to the decision just made by the Law Society of Upper Canada to admit women as barristers. One reporter with considerable foresight wrote:

Until two weeks ago, women in the province of Ontario had only the privilege of obeying or breaking the law. Now, however, they may assist men in interpreting it. And who can say that he is altogether wrong who looks forward to the time when they shall share in making it, either through the ballot box or the legislative assembles, or becoming its interpreters upon the bench?

In an article called “The Home,” Mrs Stone-Wiggins drew readers’ attention to the proverb “Women’s sphere is the home and of it she should be queen.” Notwithstanding the proverb’s wide acceptance by society, she asked “how many wives in Canada have a legal title to their home over which they preside so that it may be safe from the bailiff in case of financial loss on the part of the husband?” As only one in one hundred women owned their own home, she argued that the proverb “has no significance in our age.” She contended that “If the stronger sex have the almost exclusive right to possess themselves of all the offices, and the professions in the state, surely women make a modest request when they ask that the home should be the legal property of the wife.”

Another article looked toward the position of women in the upcoming twentieth century. Its author wrote:

It is my cherished belief that in the twentieth century there will be no artificial restrictions placed upon women by laws which bar them out of certain employments, professions and careers, or by that public sentiment, stronger than law, which now practically closes to them many paths of usefulness for which they seem to me to be specially adapted. All the most progressive pioneers have ever dreamed of asking is that, in the case of women as in that of men, they should not be hedged about by barriers made by the privileged classes, who, in politics, ecclesiastical, professional and business life, have secured the power to say who shall come in and who shall stay out….I confidently expect that they [women] will win their greatest laurels in the realm of government. Many of the great statesmen of the future will be women; many of the most successful diplomatists will be women; many of the greatest preachers will be women.

The special one-day “Woman’s Edition” of The Evening Journal was a great success. The newspaper sold 3,000 additional copies beyond its normal daily circulation. Many local businesses also supported the issue through their advertisements. It demonstrated that women could do men’s jobs, and excel at them. However, the women’s campaign to establish a Free, or Public Library in Ottawa foundered, at least for a time. The Capital had to wait another decade before Andrew Carnegie, the American millionaire, came to the rescue, and provided the money necessary to build a Public Library.

How have women fared in Canada since that 1895 special newspaper edition in government, in the church, in the courts, and in business? Have the “artificial restrictions” and societal pressures been eliminated? The answer is mixed. Despite the approaching hundredth anniversary of female enfranchisement in Ontario and at the federal level, women still account for a minority of federal Members of Parliament and Senators. Kim Campbell has been the only woman to become Prime Minister of Canada, holding power for only 133 days in 1993. At the provincial level, women have fared better. Kathleen Wynne is the current Premier of Ontario, while women currently head governments in Alberta and British Columbia. For a short period in 2013, six of ten provinces had a woman premier. The ordination of women as ministers or priests has been permitted since 1936 in the United Church of Canada, and since 1975 in the Anglican Church of Canada. The first woman Moderator of the United Church was elected in 1980. The ordination of the first Canadian woman Anglican bishop occurred in 1994. There are, of course, no woman Roman Catholic priests. At the Supreme Court of Canada, women are well represented, four of nine Justices are women, including the Chief Justice of Canada, the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin. In business, however, women continue to fare poorly, According to the 2013 Catalyst Census, only 15.9 per cent of board seats of Canadian companies are filled by women.

 

Sources:

Anglican Church of Canada, 2016. Ordination of Women in the Anglican Church of Canada (Deacons, Priests and Bishops), http://www.anglican.ca/help/faq/ordination-of-women/.

Catalyst, 2013. Catalyst Accord: Women On Corporate Boards In Canada, http://www.catalyst.org/catalyst-accord-women-corporate-boards-canada.

Connelly, M.P. 2015. “Women in the Labour Force,” Historica Canada, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/women-in-the-labour-force/.

Evening Journal (The), 1895. “Air Your Fancies,” 4 April.

————————–, 1895. “Saturday is the Day,” 11 April.

————————–, 1895. “Woman’s Edition,” 13 April.

————————–, 1895. “The Woman’s Number,” 15 April.

Gaizauskas, Barbara. 1990. Feed The Flame: A Natural History Of The Ottawa Literary And Scientific Society, Carleton University, Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, https://curve.carleton.ca/b81c434b-04c8-4886-9c97-cfc1a560ff51.

House of Commons, 1895. Debates, 7th Parliament, 5th Session, Vol. 1, page 2141, http://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC0705_01/1081?r=0&s=1.

Ottawa Council of Women, 2016, About, http://www.ottawacw.ca/index.html.

National Council of Women of Canada, 2016. History, http://www.ncwcanada.com/about-us/our-history/.

Canada’s First Woman Senator

 20 February 1930

At roughly 3.30 pm on Thursday, 20 February 1930, two newly-appointed senators to Canada’s Upper House of Parliament were introduced and took their seats. They were the Hon. Robert Forke of Pipestone, Manitoba, and the Hon. Cairine Mackay Wilson of Ottawa, Ontario. In and of itself, this event was not unusual, senators are routinely appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister when vacancies result from retirement or death. What made this occurrence special was that it was the first time a woman had taken a seat in Canada’s Senate. Only four months earlier, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London had ruled that women were indeed “eligible persons” to sit in Canada’s Upper House, overturning an early judgement to the contrary by Canada’s Supreme Court.

Cairine Wilson,

Cairine Mackay Wilson, Canada’s First Woman Senator

The elevation of Cairine Wilson to the Senate, announced a few days earlier on 15 February 1930, did not come as a great surprise. Her name had been mooted as a likely candidate almost immediately after the Privy Council had made its ruling. On her appointment, Prime Minister Mackenzie King said that “the government [had availed] itself of the first opportunity to meet the new conditions created by the finding of the Privy Council as to the eligibility of women for the Senate.” However, her appointment was almost stillborn as her husband was apparently opposed to her taking paid employment, and had informed the Governor General that she would decline the nomination. She quickly set the record straight and accepted the Prime Minister’s nomination over her husband’s objections.

Press reports of her appointment were positive, though they focused more on her personal attributes and family connections rather than her qualifications. Wilson was described as a tall women, still in her 40s, with a “dignified bearing.” She was “highly educated, tactful, and had unaffected manners,” with “dark hair and bright blue eyes.” The bilingual mother of eight lived at 192 Daly Avenue in Ottawa, though she and her husband were in the process of renovating and moving to the old Keefer manor house in Rockcliffe. The family also owned a summer residence in St Andrews in New Brunswick. Newspapers speculated on how she would be addressed when she entered the Senate, and on what she would wear. One newspaper article thought that she would bring to the Senate, “the feminine and hostess touch.”

Born in 1885, Wilson came from a wealthy and socially prominent Montreal family that had strong ties to the Liberal Party of Canada. Her father, Robert Mackay, a director of many leading Canadian firms including the Bank of Montreal and the Canadian Pacific Railway, had been appointed to the Senate in 1901 by his good friend Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a position he held until his death in 1916. Cairine Wilson’s husband, Norman Wilson, had been a Liberal member of parliament for Russell County in Eastern Ontario prior to their marriage in 1909. She herself was a Liberal Party activist, having chaired the first meeting of the Ottawa Women’s Liberal Club in 1922, and was Club president for the following three years. In 1928, she was a key organizer of the National Federal of Liberal Women of Canada.

Perhaps surprisingly, given her political credentials, Cairine Wilson had not been active in the suffrage movement, nor had she been involved in the legal suit, known as the “Persons Case,” that challenged the exclusion of women from the Senate. However, in her first Senate speech, given in French to honour her natal province, she saluted the “valiant work” of the five women, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby, commonly referred to as the “Famous Five,” who made her appointment possible. She also expressed “profound gratitude to the Government for having facilitated the admission of women to the Senate by referring to the courts the question of the right to membership.” She added that she had not sought the “great honour of representing Canadian women in the Upper House,” but desired to eliminate any misapprehension that “a woman cannot engage in public affairs without deserting the home and neglecting the duties that Motherhood imposes.”

The “Persons Case,” launched by the “Famous Five” in 1927, was a landmark decision in Canadian jurisprudence that not only opened the door for women to participate more fully in public life, but also determined how Canada’s Constitution, the British North America Act, now called the Constitution Act 1867, should be interpreted. Although most women were given the vote in federal elections in 1918, with Agnes McPhail of the Progressive Party of Canada elected in the 1921 General Election in the Ontario riding of Grey Southwest, women were still barred from sitting in the Senate on the grounds that the BNA Act referred only to male senators. Successive governments did nothing to change the law despite evincing support for women’s rights.

After years of frustration, the “Famous Five” petitioned the federal government in 1927 to refer the issue to the Supreme Court for its judgement.  After some discussion on the exact wording of the question, the government did so, with the Supreme Court reaching its decision on 24 April 1928. The Justices unanimously ruled against admitting women into the Senate. While they agreed there was no doubt that women were “persons,” the Justices contended that women were not “qualified persons” within the meaning of Section 24 of the BNA Act. In contrast, women could become members of the House of Commons as Parliament had the authority under Section 41 of the Act to determine membership and qualifications of Commons’ members, a latitude that did not extend to senators.

The Justices argued that under English common law women were traditionally subject to a legal incapacity to hold public office, “chiefly out of respect to women, and in a sense of decorum, and not from want of intellect, or their being for any other reason unfit to take part in the government of the country.” While the word “person” was often used as a synonym for human being, and there was legal precedent that allowed for the word to be interpreted as either a man or a woman, such an interpretation was deemed inapplicable to this case. The Justices argued that it was important to examine the use of the word in light of circumstances and constitutional law. When the BNA Act was drafted in 1867, it was clear that the drafters intended that only men would be “qualified persons” as this was the convention of the time. The section, which listed the qualifications of members of the upper house, had also been clearly modelled on earlier provincial statutes, and under those statutes women were not eligible for appointment. This restrictive interpretation of the word “person” was  underscored by the use of the pronoun “he” in the relevant sections of the Act. The Justices argued that had the BNA Act’s drafters intended to allow women to become senators, something that was inconsistent with common law practices of that time, they would have explicitly included women in the definition of “qualified persons” rather than rely on an obscure interpretation of the word “person.”

The Famous Five, with the support of the Government, took the case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, at the time the highest appellant court of Canada. On 29 October 1929, the Judicial Committee overturned the Supreme Court’s judgement ruling that women were indeed “qualified persons” to sit in Canada’s Senate. Speaking on behalf of the Committee, Lord Chancellor Viscount Sankey said that the “exclusion of woman from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours.” Standing the question on its head, he asked why the word “person” should not include women. He put forward a “living tree” interpretation of Canada‘s Constitution, viewing it as something organic “capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits.“ Consequently, the Committee interpreted the Act in “a large and liberal” fashion rather than by “a narrow and technical constraint.“ Lord Sankey’s “living tree” doctrine subsequently became, and continues to be, the basis of how Canada’s Supreme Court interprets the Constitution to this very day.

Cairine Wilson went on to have a long and distinguished career in the Senate. She was the first woman to chair a Senate Standing Committee, presiding over the Public Works and Grounds Committee from 1930 to 1947. She chaired the important Immigration and Labour Committee from 1947 to 1961, a time when Canada was welcoming hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Europe each year despite its population being less than half of what it is today. In 1957 alone, Canada welcomed more than 280,000 immigrants, of which more than 37,000 were refugees who had fled Hungary after the failed Hungarian Revolution. In 1955, she was appointed Deputy Speaker in the Senate. 

As chair of the Canadian National Committee on Refugees, a position she held from 1938 to 1948, Wilson controversially went against her own government’s support for British and French efforts to appease Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. She was also an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism, and fought (sadly with only limited success) to open Canada’s doors to Jewish refugees fleeing fascism in Europe. In 1945, she became the honorary chair of the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada founded by Lotta Hitschmanova. The USC Canada became one of Canada’s leading non-governmental organizations, providing  food, educational supplies, and housing to refugees, notably children, in war-ravaged Europe during the late 1940s and 1950s. It continues to be active today in developing countries. France made Wilson a knight of the Legion of Honour for her humanitarian efforts.

Cairine Wilson died on 3 March 1962, still an active senator. A secondary school in Orleans, Ontario, now a part of Ottawa, is named in her honour.

As a postscript to this story, it took the federal government four years to nominate the second woman to the Senate. Iva Fallis was appointed in 1935 by the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett. In 2009, the “Famous Five” were posthumously made senators. As of September 2015, 32 of 83 senators were women.

Sources:

About.com. 2015. Cairine Wilson, http://canadaonline.about.com/od/womeningovernment/p/cairinewilson.htm.

Canadian Human Rights Commission, 2015. Reference to Meaning of Word “Persons” in Section 24 of British North America Act, 1867, (Judicial Committee of the Privy Council), Edwards c. A.G. of Canada  [1930] A.C. 124, http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/en/browseSubjects/edwardspc.asp.

Hughes Vivian, 2001/2002, “How the Famous Five in Canada Won Personhood for Women, London Journal Of Canadian Studies, Volume 17.

Parliament of Canada, 2015. Wilson, The Hon. Cairine Reay, http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parlinfo/Files/Parliamentarian.aspx?Item=176923a1-4b32-4b92-8bee-1d447764ec79&Section=ALL&Language=E.

Senate of Canada, 1930. Debates, 16th Parliament, 4th Session,Vol. 1.

The Evening Citizen, 1930. “Woman Senator Is Appointed By Gov’t of Canada,“17 February.

———————–, 1930. “Canada’s First Woman Senator Is Well Qualified By Her Talents And Training For Part She Is Called To,” 17 February.

University of Calgary, 1999. Global Perspectives on Personhood: Rights and Responsibilities: the “Persons” Case, http://people.ucalgary.ca/~gpopconf/person.html.

Supreme Court of Canada, 2015. Judgements of the Supreme Court of Canada, Reference re meaning of the word “Persons” in sec. 24 of British North America Act, 1928-04-24, http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/9029/index.do.

Image: Cairine Wilson, Shelburne Studios, Library and Archives Canada, C-0052280.

Charlotte Whitton Becomes Mayor

1 October 1951

On 1 October 1951, there was a seismic shift in Ottawa’s political landscape. That evening, Charlotte Whitton was unanimously chosen mayor by Ottawa’s city council to complete Mayor Grenville W. Goodwin’s term of office. Five weeks earlier, Goodwin had died of a heart attack only seven months after he was elected. Whitton’s appointment was remarkable and unexpected. At that time, there were virtually no female politicians at any level of government. Whitton subsequently went on to win four mayoral elections, dominating Ottawa municipal politics for almost fifteen years. In the process, she shook up what had been a comfortable bastion of male privilege, cleaned up City Hall that had become mired in patronage and nepotism, fought the cozy links between developers and city counsellors, built a new city hall, and presided over a rapidly growing city, all while keeping a firm grip of the municipal purse strings.

However, her years on city council were marred by an inability to work with others, and violent outbursts of temper which went far beyond verbal jousting. On one occasion, the diminutive mayor took several swings at a fellow council member, Paul Tardif.  Fortunately, she didn’t connect. On another, she pulled a toy gun from her desk drawer after a heated debate, prompting Tardif to half-jokingly say “Don’t shoot!” Whitton’s council antics, acerbic wit, strong views on virtually everything, and a penchant for the theatrical, which included a fondness for dressing up in medieval robes of office complete with a tricorne hat, kept her in the press spotlight for years. Already well known as an expert on social and welfare programmes, and a newspaper columnist, Charlotte Whitton, the mayor, became a celebrity, even appearing on the U.S. television show What’s My Line in 1955.

Charlotte Whitton in full mayoral regalia, 1954

Charlotte Whitton in full mayoral regalia, 1954

Whitton was born in Renfrew, Ontario on 8 March 1896. Her father, an English Methodist, did odd jobs in the area, while her mother, an Irish Catholic, ran a boarding house. As “mixed” marriages were frowned on in the late nineteenth century, her parents eloped, and were married in the Anglican Church. Whitton remained a life-long Anglican though her siblings became Catholic. Rare for women of that era, she received a university education, obtaining an undergraduate arts degree in 1917 from Queen’s University. By virtue of her high academic standing, the university granted her a master’s degree. Later, when she received the first of several honorary doctorates, she became known as Dr Charlotte Whitton.

After university, Whitton joined the Social Service Council of Canada, and became assistant editor of the journal Social Welfare. In 1920, she moved to the Canadian National Council on Child Welfare following its establishment by the federal government, becoming its director in 1925. With its mandate expanding over time to encompass family welfare, the agency later became known as the Canadian Council on Social Development. During her twenty-year career with the Council, Whitton became nationally prominent for her social welfare work, especially her advocacy for improved and standardized child welfare legislation across the country. She also worked on behalf of children and families at the international level, representing Canada on the League of Nations’ child welfare committee in Geneva. In 1934, she was named Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her pioneering child welfare activities.

Whitton was also a passionate advocate for women’s rights. She disapproved of the prevailing moral double standard where mothers were blamed for illegitimate pregnancies but not the fathers. She also believed that women should be paid the same as men for doing the same job. She encouraged women to stand for election at all level of government, though she though they were best suited for municipal government on the grounds that cities dealt with issues closer to the family. In her view, women were better than men in caring for the sick, the elderly, and the young. In reality, she figured that women could outperform men at anything. She famously said “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Fortunately, this is not difficult.”

While “progressive” in some areas, she was anything but a left-wing radical. She supported capital punishment, opposed official bilingualism, abortion, and divorce. While a strong proponent of the traditional family, she never married, but instead devoted her life to her career, modelling herself on Elizabeth I, the powerful “virgin” queen. Whitton lived with her best friend Margaret Grier for more than a quarter century until Grier’s death in 1947. While the two women shared their lives, and had a strong emotional bond, there is no evidence of a physical relationship. When the Great Depression struck, Whitton became well-known for her “tough love” recommendations to deal with high unemployment, including the establishment of remote, quasi-military, work camps for unemployed men. She also opposed income support programmes except for the deserving poor, viewing government aid as dehumanizing, something that would diminish people’s responsibility for their family and neighbours. She unsuccessfully lobbied against the introduction of the “baby bonus,” arguing that it put an economic value on people’s “powers of reproduction rather than production.” Echoing the sentiments of supporters of the eugenics movement widely popular during the first half of the twentieth century, she also feared that the baby bonus would weaken Canadian blood lines by encouraging mental and moral “defectives” to have more children.

Whitton adamantly opposed immigration that might alter the complexion of Canada, both literally and figuratively. While she could do little to affect the French fact in Canada, she didn’t want to dilute Canada’s Englishness. Although she generally tolerated “Anglo-Saxon” immigrants, anybody else, including Jews, Asians and Blacks, were not welcome. Even when it came to British immigrants, Whitton was selective, wanting solid, yeoman stock who could support themselves; the poor, the sick, the huddled masses were not for her. She lobbied strenuously against child immigration from Britain partly due to the conditions that many children experienced on their arrival in Canada, but also due to her concern that they were not the right sort of people, often being the illegitimate offspring of the poorer classes. Again, she seemed to be influenced by the eugenics movement that viewed poverty as a pathological condition.

Most controversially of all, in 1940, Whitton opposed the evacuation to Canada of nine thousand, mostly Jewish, children from war-torn Europe. According to Irving Abella and Harold Troper, in their book None Is Too Many, the Canadian Jewish Congress saw her as “an enemy of Jewish immigration.” But Whitton views on race were mainstream stuff seventy years ago. Reflecting the mood of the population, the Canadian government refused to accept the child refugees, though it subsequently authorized ten thousand British children to take shelter in Canada.

In 1950, prompted by the Ottawa Council of Women, Whitton run for public office, winning one of the city’s four Board of Control positions in that year’s municipal elections. The Board, which formed a sort of municipal “cabinet,” was elected by citizens at large in the same fashion as the mayor; in contrast, aldermen were elected by residents of specific city wards. Whitton topped the slate of prospective controllers on the back of widespread support from Ottawa’s female voters. She was the first woman ever elected to Ottawa’s City Council.

In the same election, Grenville W. Goodwin, the soft-spoken owner of an optical company, was elected mayor, toppling Edouard Bourque, the previous incumbent. Despite opposition because of her sex, Whitton was selected by Council as Deputy Mayor reflecting her top place finish in the Board of Control race. When Goodwin passed away in August 1951, Whitton stepped in as Acting Mayor. However, her appointment as Mayor to fill the unexpired portion of Goodwin’s term was far from assured. The city’s solicitor argued that the “Acting” position was only temporary, and had to be ratified by a vote of Council. Many thought the position should go to a man. A poll of council members gave Whitton only one vote, with most favouring Leonard Coulter who had been Deputy Mayor under Bourque. However, following several weeks of back-room politicking, Coulter pulled out of the race, bidding his time until the next election. With the track now clear, Whitton became mayor. She immediately set out a five-point civic programme which included measures to reduce a shortage of low-cost housing (an issue dear to her heart), and steps to streamline City Hall. It was the start of a tumultuous period in Ottawa’s civic administration as Whitton shook up a complacent municipal bureaucracy.

Whitton subsequently went on to win the 1952 and 1954 municipal elections. Bowing out of the 1956 elections, she entered federal politics running as a Progressive Conservative candidate in the Liberal stronghold of Ottawa West in the 1958 General Election. While John G. Diefenbaker’s Conservatives swept to power, his coattails were insufficient to elect Whitton who lost by roughly 1,000 votes to the popular Liberal incumbent, George McIlraith. A disappointed Whitton returned to writing and lecturing before re-entering Ottawa municipal politics, winning the 1960 mayoral election. She won again in 1962. But by 1964, Ottawa residents were tired of Whitton’s theatrics and the constant battles at City Hall. That year they elected the gentle giant Donald Reid as mayor. Whitton experienced the indignity of placing third behind Frank Ryan, her own brother-in-law who had the audacity to run against her.  But her council days were not over. She returned to City Hall in 1966 as an alderman for Capital Ward, championing the cause of the elderly. She was successfully re-elected two more times, before retiring in 1972 after suffering a broken hip. She died in Ottawa at the age of seventy-eight in 1975.

During her lifetime, Charlotte Whitton received many honours. In addition to the CBE awarded her in 1934, she became a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1968, and received six honorary doctorates from Canadian and American universities. In 1973, the City Council chamber in the old City Hall was named the Whitton Hall in her honour. At the ceremony, Mayor Pierre Benoit called her “one of the greatest municipal politicians Ottawa has ever had.” She also received laudatory messages from the Queen, Governor General Michener, Prime Minister Trudeau and Ontario Premier Davis.

However, as controversial she was in life, Whitton remained controversial in death. In 2010, when Major Jim Watson proposed naming the city’s new archives building after her, the Canadian Jewish Labour Congress objected on the grounds that Whitton had been anti-Semitic, citing her role in barring Jewish child refugees from Canada in 1940. Dave Mullington, a Whitton biographer, came to her defence, noting that despite what happened in 1940, her relationship with the Jewish community was far more positive than this one incident suggested. Among other things, she had been a staunch supporter of Israel through the Suez Crisis in 1957, had been named “woman of the year” in 1964 by Toronto’s B’nai Brith organization, and was among the first persons to sign Lorry Greenberg’s nomination papers in his election for mayor in 1974. Greenberg subsequently became Ottawa’s first Jewish mayor. However, the controversy caused Mayor Watson to withdraw his suggestion. Instead, the archives building was named after James Bartleman, a former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.

Sources:

Abella, Irving & Troper, Harold, 1982. None Is too Many, Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948, Lester & Orpen Dennys, Publishers: Toronto.

Brown, Dave, 2010. “Charlotte Whitton’s ‘disappearing’ a disgrace; Former Ottawa mayor’s reputation on line,” The Ottawa Citizen, 22 October.

McCarthy, Stuart, 2010. “Recognize Charlotte Whitton’s Dark Side, The Ottawa Citizen, 16 August.

Mullington, Dave, 2010. Charlotte, The Last Suffragette, Refrew, Ontario: General Store Publishing Company.

———————. 2010. “Whitton Deserves a Fair Shake,” The Ottawa Citizen, 25 August.

Rooke, P.T. & Schnell, R.L., 1987. No Bleeding Heart: Charlotte Whitton, A Feminist on the Right, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

The Evening Citizen, 1951. Dr. Whitton Takes Over As Mayor; Gren Goodwin’s Funeral Thursday,” 28 August.

————————-, 1951. “Coulter Favored In Poll,” 29 August.

————————, 1951. “Charlotte Whitton Urges Public Life Partnership at Inter-Club Council for Women,” 15 September.

————————, 1951. “New Mayor’s Program, Dr. Whitton Outlines 5-Point Civic Schedule,” 2 October.

The Ottawa Citizen, 2010. “Jewish Congress opposes Whitton recognition, Group cites role in barring child refugees fleeing Holocaust in Second World War,”14 August 2010.

Image: Charlotte Whitton in full mayoral regalia, by Douglas Bartlett, 1954, Library and Archives Canada, CA19128.

Eastview Birth Control Trial

17 March 1937

Birth control is an accepted part of modern life by all except the most religiously conservative. Competing brands of condoms in garish packages jostle for attention on the druggist’s shelves, while contraceptive pills, easily obtained by prescription, are covered by health insurance plans. It might therefore come as a surprise to learn that as recent as 1969 contraceptives were illegal in Canada. Even the dissemination of basic information about birth control was prohibited unless it could be shown to be “in the public good.” One of the big steps along the long road to repealing the law took place in Ottawa in the 1930s. However, the landmark legal decision that set change in motion had little to do with a woman’s right to control her body. Far more important were efforts to control the size of Canada’s poorer classes.

On 14 September 1936, Dorothea Palmer was arrested after visiting a welfare mother in the community of Eastview, now called Vanier. A week before her arrest, Palmer, who had received some training as a nurse in her native Britain before immigrating to Canada in 1928, had taken a part-time job in Ottawa with the Parents’ Information Bureau (PIB). The PIB, started in 1930 by Alvin Ratz Kaufman, a wealthy, Kitchener-based industrialist and philanthropist, provided poor families with pamphlets about birth control, as well as sample contraceptives.  PIB workers would make house calls on poor mothers, typically by referral of a doctor or friend. After a mother filled out an application form, which asked a slew of questions, including her race, the number of pregnancies she had had, her husband’s occupation and salary, she could acquire contraceptives through mail order from the PIB for a small fee, or for free, if she were destitute.

Dorothea Palmer

Dorothea Palmer, date unknown

Palmer was arrested by Constable Emil Martel and brought to the police station where she was questioned by Chief Richard Mannion. Believing she was not going to be charged, Palmer freely told the police what she was doing in Eastview, adding that “A woman should be master of her own body.” Mannion called the Crown Attorney who charged her with three counts under Section 207(c) of the 1892 Criminal Code for selling, advertising, and disposing of contraceptives. Although Palmer figured she would get in trouble with the Catholic Church, she was surprised to have been arrested. PIB workers had been told that what they were doing was legal as their actions were covered by the “public good” clause of the Act. However, the broad applicability of the clause, which was intended to protect doctors, was untested in court. Eager to set a legal precedent, Kaufman provided the $500 bail for Palmer’s release, and paid $25,000 for a top-rate legal team for her defence.

The trial, one of the longest in Canadian history, lasted six months. Witnesses, included social workers, clergy, and doctors, as well as twenty-one poor, francophone women visited by Palmer in Eastview. Judge Lester Clayton quickly dismissed two charges against Palmer, those of selling and disposing of contraceptives devices, due to lack of evidence, leaving the trial focused on whether or not the distribution of pamphlets on birth control fell under the “public good” clause of the Act.

The prosecution relied on medical opinions to show that birth control was unnatural, or dangerous, and that the distribution of birth control literature by lay people was not in the public interest. One obstetrician-gynaecologist called by the Crown argued that the control of a woman’s organs was above man’s law, and that birth control would lead to a woman experiencing “pathological conditions.” Another, a professor of gynaecology at the University of Montreal, spoke against all forms of birth control other than the rhythm method. On cross examination, he admitted that his objection was religious. Some doctors, while supporting birth control for existing mothers who wanted to space future pregnancies, argued that it should be handled solely by medical professionals. However, the testimony of medical experts was undermined when they acknowledged that they actually knew little about birth control; the subject was not taught in medical school.

Palmer’s defence team focus its arguments on the supposed sociological and economic virtues of birth control rather than human rights. Although the directors, both women, of the Toronto and Hamilton birth control clinics spoke about a woman’s reproductive rights, and the welfare of mothers, as did the Eastview mothers who didn’t want more children, their testimony was overshadowed by eugenic views expressed by male witnesses.

Prior to World War II, eugenics was a respected scientific theory, based on Darwinism, that aimed to improve mankind through selective breeding for beneficial human characteristics (positive eugenics) and the discouragement of negative traits through birth control or sterilization (negative eugenics). The Eugenics Society of Canada, established in the early 1930s, lobbied for the establishment of a national policy of “race betterment” by enacting legislation to “safeguard racial progress.” Many respected progressive Canadians were eugenics supporters, including Tommy Douglas and Nellie McClung.  Both Alberta and British Columbia enacted legislation permitting the sterilization of unfit and feeble-minded individuals that wasn’t repealed until the early 1970s. Unfortunately, the terms “unfit,” and “feeble-minded” were open for interpretation. For many, racial improvement meant advancing the white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant “race” at the expense of others. Eugenics supporters also argued that the upper and middle classes were being outbred by the poor and mentally ill, leading to genetic, social, and economic disaster. To correct the birth differential, birth control should be made available to the masses. The reputation of eugenics crashed during World War II when Nazi Germany used the theory as justification for its racial policies that led to the death of millions in its concentration camps.

A number of prominent Canadian eugenicists testified at Palmer’ trial, including Alvin Kaufman, Treasurer and founding member of the Eugenics Society of Canada, Dr. William Hutton, the Society’s president as well as the Brantford Medical Doctor of Health, and the Reverend Dr. C.E. Silox, the Secretary General of the Social Service Council of Canada. Both Kaufman and Silox testified that since poor, unemployed workers were having large families, the only alternative to birth control was revolution or communism. Silox raised the Malthusian spectre of uncontrolled population growth requiring state intervention, or the “invention of new deadly diseases, more terrible famines, and bigger and better wars” to stop it. If that wasn’t controversial enough, Silox argued that French Canadians were deliberately outbreeding English Canadians while driving down their standard of living. By giving poor francophone families access to birth control, he claimed that Anglo-French tensions would be eliminated, and English dominance maintained. Le Droit, Ottawa’s French language newspaper, angrily retorted that the trial was all about killing French Canadians in the womb.

Dr. William Hutton presented dubious statistics purporting to show that the average intelligence of Canadians was declining due to a higher fertility rate of the less intelligent, a view supported by a University of Toronto psychiatrist who argued that Canada faced a biological crisis as a consequence. Further testimony by a Toronto economist underscored the burden to society of supporting the unemployed of Eastview, noting that the community’s unemployment rate was more than double the national average, and that births in the town outnumbered deaths by more than 150 per year. Similarly, the Secretary of the Toronto District Labour Council argued that birth control should be used to “govern the level of the nation’s population” until surplus workers were absorbed, or the economic system changed.

On 17 March 1937, Judge Clayton, swayed by the economic and social arguments made by the defence, ruled that Dorothea Palmer’s actions were indeed in the public interest. In his summing up, there was no mention of women’s rights. With the subsequent appeal by the Crown dismissed, Clayton’s ruling opened the door a crack for birth control in Canada.

Sadly, for all her courage, Palmer received little support from her husband, relatives and Church who disapproved of her stand. During her trial, a stranger, passing on the street, slapped her face. Palmer received obscene phone calls at all hours, and was sexually assaulted by a man who told her “I’ll show you what it’s like without any birth control.” Fortunately, a knee in the groin and a punch in the face stopped her assailant.  After the trial, she quit the PIB, saying her work was done, and faded into obscurity. Palmer, a pioneer for women’s rights, died in 1992.

Sources:

Annau, Catherine, 1994. “Eager Eugenicists: A Reprisal of the Birth Control Society of Hamilton,” Social History, Volume XXVII, Number 53, p. 111-133, http://pi.library.yorku.ca/ojs/index.php/hssh/article/viewFile/16541/15400.

Bonikowsky, Laura, 2011, “It’s About Control: Dorothea Palmer and Contraception,” Historica Canada Blog, 13 September, http://blog.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/blog/posts/it%E2%80%99s-about-control-dorothea-palmer-and-contraception/.

Dodd, Dianne, 1983, “The Canadian Birth Control Movement on Trial, 1936-37,” Social History, Volume XVI, Number 32, p. 411-28, http://pi.library.yorku.ca/ojs/index.php/hssh/article/viewFile/38282/34685.

Jasmin, Olivier, 2012. Eugenics in Canada, http://rimstead-cours.espaceweb.usherbrooke.ca/IntercultH2012/eugenics.html.

Martel, Marcel, 2014, Canada The Good, A Short History of Vice since 1500, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo.

National Post, 2012. “Canadians airbrush the truth Tommy Douglas’s enthusiasm for eugenics: MD,” 14 March.

Revie, Linda, 2006. “More Than Just Boots! The Eugenic and Commercial Concerns behind A. R. Kaufman’s Birth Controlling Activities,” Canadian Bulletin of Mental Health, Volume 23:1, p. 119-143, file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/1269-1271-1-PB.pdf.

The Globe, 1936. “Palmer acquitted on one birth control count,” 21 October.

—————, 1936. “Public Good, Is Defense Point in Palmer Case,” 2 November.

—————, 1936. “Birth Control or Red Regime, Pastor States,” 3 November.

—————, 1936. “Rabbi, Pastors, Doctor Defend Birth Control,” 6 November.

—————, 1937. “Deny Charge of Obscenity,” 2 February.

The Globe and Mail, 1937. “Birth Control Case Dismissed,” 18 March.

———————–, 1978. “Did Dirty Work for men at trial, pioneer of birth control says,” 30 November.

Image: http://www.intlawgrrls.com/2010/09/on-september-14.html.