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, Library and Archives Canada, C-0052280

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 Federation 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: 2015. Cairine Wilson,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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

Lotta and USC Canada

10 June 1945

For older Canadians, Lotta Hitschmanova needs no introduction. Each year, until the early 1980s, her distinctive voice would be heard on the radio and television urging people to give generously to the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada (USC) located at 56 Sparks Street, Ottawa. She had established the Committee in 1945 to help the poor and suffering, especially children, in war ravaged Europe. Later, the USC shifted its attention to developing countries. Always dressed in a quasi-military, olive-green uniform complete with hat, maple leaf badges, and a chest full of medal ribbons received from grateful nations, Lotta was one of Canada’s most recognizable personalities. Overseas, she became the face of Canadian humanitarian efforts, always present where the need was greatest.

Lotta Hitschmanova, circa 1970
Lotta Hitschmanova, circa 1970, Wikipedia

Lotta’s story began in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. Born into a loving family on 28 November 1909, her father was Max Hitschmann, a prosperous industrialist, and her mother Else, a prominent socialite. Lotta received a first class education, studying at the University of Prague and the Sorbonne in Paris. In addition to a PhD in philosophy, she received diplomas in five languages, English, French, German, Spanish and her native Czech, as well as one for journalism. Somehow, she also found time to earn a Red Cross nursing certificate. In the late 1930s, she became a journalist for Czech and other eastern European newspapers, earning a reputation for being an outspoken opponent of Nazi Germany.

Her comfortable life was shattered when the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia following the Munich Agreement between the major European powers and Adolf Hitler. She was forced to flee for her life, leaving all she knew behind. She was never to see her parents again; they were to die in a German concentration camp. Her sister and brother-in-law fled to Palestine; years later they joined Lotta in Canada.

Almost penniless, Lotta first went to Paris and then to Brussels, where she resumed her journalism career before having to flee once more when Germany invaded Belgium in 1940. It was about this time that she began to go by “Hitschmanova,” the Slavic version of her name, instead of the Germanic “Hitschmann” as a personal response to Nazi aggression in Europe. Escaping to the south of France, she settled down to a precarious life in Vichy-controlled Marseilles, working for an aid agency as an interpreter. This is where she first came into contact with the Unitarian Service Committee, a Boston-based relief agency that ran a medical clinic in the city. Refused a visa to immigrate to the United States, she was later granted a visa “for the duration,” by the Canadian government at the request of the Czech government in exile in London. She arrived in Montreal in July 1942, having crossed the perilous, submarine infested Atlantic by boat, travelling via Spain, Portugal, Bermuda, and New York.

She almost immediately found a job as a secretary for a lumber company owned by a Czech family who knew her parents. Three months later, she got a job as a postal censor in Ottawa, working out of a temporary, wooden, war-time building at Dow’s Lake. She also used her journalist skills, writing for the Ottawa Citizen, and talking about Czechoslovakia on the local French-language radio station. In 1944, she temporarily moved to Washington D.C. to work with the refugee relief organization of the newly formed United Nations. But upset with how the agency operated, and concerned that she might not be able to stay in the United States or Canada after the war, she returned to her censor’s job in Ottawa.

On 10 June 1945, Lotta chaired in Ottawa the first meeting of the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada with the encouragement of the Boston-based parent organization. Four persons from the parish of the Ottawa Unitarian Association, whose church was then located at the corner of Elgin and Lewis Streets, attended this inaugural meeting. Lotta’s subsequent task was to contact the five other Unitarian churches in Canada to get their support. At the Committee’s second meeting, it was agreed that the purpose of the organization was to provide relief to distressed people, especially children, of Czechoslovakia and France. Encountering difficulty in registering with the government, Cairine Wilson, Canada’s first woman senator, was invited on board in the role of honourary chairperson, giving the fledgling agency political clout. Two months later, the Committee was registered under the War Charities Act as “The Unitarian Service Committee of Canada Fund.”

USC Canada Fundraising Advertisement, The Evening Citizen, 14 April 1947
USC Canada Fundraising Advertisement, The Evening Citizen, 14 April 1947

Initially, the USC operated out of Lotta’s home at 668 Cooper Street, before moving into larger premises, first at 48 Sparks Street, then down the street to 78 Sparks, and finally, in the mid-1950s, to its quarters at 56 Sparks Street—which was to become one of Canada’s best-known addresses. During its first year of operation, volunteers, mostly women, collected and packed 30,000 kilograms of used clothing in 150-pound, wooden crates destined for destitute French and Czech children.  Shipping was provided free by Canadian Pacific Railway within Canada, and by a French aid agency from Canada to Paris. Also sent were medical supplies, “utility kits” consisting of toiletries and educational supplies for children, dried milk, and food. Among the USC’s first projects was a home for physically handicapped children in France, many of whom had lost limbs in Allied air raids. Later projects included apprenticeship programmes, the provision of artificial limbs to youngsters, and a foster-parents scheme where Canadians could sponsor a child for three months for $45.

Sample Registration Card of a Child War Victim and case history that would be forwarded by the USC Canada to a Canadian “foster family.” The Evening Citizen, 14 April 1947.
Sample Registration Card of a Child War Victim and case history that would be forwarded by the USC Canada to a Canadian “foster family.” The Evening Citizen, 14 April 1947.

That first year of operation also saw Lotta becoming a Canadian landed immigrant, giving her the security of a permanent homeland. She also began to travel extensively in Canada, meeting with service organizations and churches, and providing press interviews to spread the word about the extent of the misery in Europe, and what Canadians could do to help through the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada. In 1945, the Committee raised $64,000, equivalent to almost $900,000 in today’s money. The following year, it raised $180,000 in money and gifts-in-kind, equivalent to roughly $2.5 million today. It was about this time that Lotta adopted her military-style costume, which was based on a U.S. army nurse’s uniform. In addition to being practical, it identified the USC, and gave her an air of authority.

The establishment of the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada redeemed a pledge Lotta made to herself when she arrived in Canada that she would give back to society, and to the nation that had given her a new home. Initially, she thought that her work would last only a couple years. However, that naïve view was quickly dashed; there was always new crises and new needs. As the USC’s programmes in Czechoslovakia and France wound down, the Committee shifted its attention to southern Europe, including Italy and, most importantly, Greece which in 1950 was emerging out of a bitter civil war. Campaigns were organized, including “Bread for Greece,” the “March of Diapers,” and “Houses for Greece.” While broader community needs were not overlooked, children were always the focus of the USC’s activities. As Europe got back on its feet through the 1950s, the USC of Canada gradually moved its operations to areas of greater need including Korea, India, the Gaza Strip, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and southern Africa.

At all times, the Unitarian Service Committee’s aid programmes were founded on the basis of caring for fellow human beings, respect, and partnership. Projects were run locally, with donors and aid recipients equally responsible for success. USC involvement was also expected to wind down over time, with aid recipients becoming self-reliant, taking over the project themselves.

While the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada had its roots in the Unitarian Church, and many of its members were Unitarian, it was a distinct, non-political, non-sectarian body separate from both its Boston parent organization as well as the Canadian Unitarian Association.  It did not proselytize, nor did it discriminate. Assistance was provided without regard to race, origin, or religion. Overtime, the Unitarian Service Committee became better known by its alternate name, USC Canada.

Through the decades that followed, Lotta Hitschmanova worked tirelessly, rising as early as 5am after putting an eighteen-hour day. She expected her staff to do likewise. She apparently preferred to hire middle-aged women with no children since they would be less distracted by outside activities, and able to devote themselves fully to the cause. She also stressed frugality; stretching the dollar was important, both as a way of providing more for her children abroad, and keeping donors happy. Despite being a harsh taskmaster on herself and staff, Lotta was much loved at home and abroad. Her success could be measured by the ribbons of honour which she proudly wore on the breast pocket of her uniform. These included the Order of Canada, first as Officer and later as Companion, the Canadian Centennial Medal, the Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee Medal, the Order of Civil Merit from Korea, la Médaille de la Réconnaissance française, la Médaille d’Honneur de la Croix Rouge, the Decoration of Honour and Peace from the Netherlands, the Red Cross Decoration and the Athena Messolora Gold Medal from Greece, and the Meritorious Order of Mohlomi from Lesotho.

In 1982, Lotta Hitschmanova, suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, retired as Executive Director of the USC Canada. She died in Ottawa on 1 August 1990. But her work lives on. The USC Canada, which is still based at 56 Sparks Street, remains active in developing countries around the world. Today, with an annual budget of about $6 million, its core focus is food production, biodiversity and health eco-systems, implemented through its “Seeds for Survival” programme funded in part by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development as well as thousands of individual donors. Faithful to the approach taken by Lotta, assistance the USC Canada programme supports women and young farmers through training, enabling them to live independent and secure lives in an ecologically sustainable manner. Lotta would have been proud.

In 2020, Lotta Hitschmanova was one of eight deserving Canadians whose portraits were shortlisted to be appear on the new $5 bill to be released in a few years’ time.


Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, 2015. Lotta Hitschmanova’s Uniform,

History Lives Here Inc., 2004-15. Soldier of Peace Documentary,

The Evening Citizen, 1946. “Nobody’s Children?” 1 April.

————————, 1946. “Unitarian Committee Ships More Clothing,” 1 April.

———————-, 1946. “Canada Aids Ill-Clad War-Shocked Children,” 20 September.

The Montreal Gazette, 1947. “Unitarian Group Begins Campaign,” 27 January.

Sanger, Clyde, 1986. Lotta, Stoddart Publishing Co.: Toronto.

USC Canada, 2015.


Lotta Hitschmanova, USC Canada,

USC Fundraising Advertisement, The Evening Citizen, 14 April 1947.

Sample Registration Card of a Child War Victim, The Evening Citizen, 14 April 1947.