Famous Scot - Cairine Reay Wilson - Canada's First Woman appointed to the Senate

Cairine was born in February 1885, into a wealthy Scots-Canadian family. She was born at home, in Kildonan House in Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal where she lived until the time of her marriage.

Cairine's roots were in the Strath of Kildonan, in Sutherlandshire, Scotland. Her great-great grandfather, William Mackay, was a crofter there until the time of the Highland Clearances and in the spring of 1820, left with his family and settled in Roster, a crofting community in the north-east county of Caithness. It was from Roster that Cairine's great-uncle Joseph, the third youngest of the family of ten born to William and his wife, Anne, emigrated to Montreal, Canada in 1832 at the age of 21.

His brother, Edward followed him to Canada in 1840 and eventually entered into partnership with Joseph in his dry goods company. When Joseph and Edward died in 1881 and 1883 respectively,the dry goods business was left to their three nephews, sons of their sister Euphemia and her husband, Angus Mackay of Lybster in Caithness. By this time, the boys, Hugh, James and Robert had also emigrated to Canada. Following the death of James and then Hugh, Robert inherited their estates and through his good business sense and wise investments, accumulated significant wealth.

In 1893, he retired from the family business to devote his energies to managing the, by now, enormous Mackay estates. His list of directorships and company offices were long and in 1901 he was elevated to the Senate.

ln May of 1871, Robert married Jane Baptist and they had nine children. Their eighth child was Cairine Reay Mackay - Cairine, Gaelic for Catherine, and Reay after the chief of the Clan Mackay. Cairine was raised in a staunch Presbyterian home and life with a rigid disciplinarian father could not always have been happy. Cairine, always shy, grew into a warm and compassionate woman, qualities she inherited from her mother. Cairine's early education was obtained at a 'young ladies' school' in Montreal and her final schooling at the Trafalgar lnstitute.

A much quoted verse, by one of her teachers, from the Book of Ecclesiastes, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might," made an impression on Cairine and shaped much of what she did later in life. Cairine never went on to higher learning as it was unthinkable, at that time, for a woman to pursue a university education.

As Cairine's father became involved in politics and following his appointment to the Senate, she often accompanied him to Ottawa. She appeared to be the only one of the Mackay children to have any interest in politics and was happy to be at her father's side in the place of her sickly mother. Sir Wilfred Laurier became a firm family friend and a frequent visitor to their home and, in turn, Cairine often stayed at the Laurier house where she was treated as the child the Lauriers never had.

It was at a social function in Ottawa that Zoe Laurier introduced Cairine to Norman Wilson, the man she would eventually marry. Norman's father was a native of Edinburgh, a Presbyterian and well connected. At the time, Norman was one of the youngest members of the House of Commons, sharing a desk with a young man by the name of William Lyon Mackenzie King. Norman and Cairine were engaged in 1908 and married on February 23, 1909. Following their marriage, the Wilsons lived in the small mill town of Rockland, some 20 miles or so from Ottawa.

The first ten years of marriage saw Cairine raising their children and managing their large property. Their first daughter, Olive, was born within a year of their marriage and their second daughter, Janet, carne along eleven months later. Cairine (her namesake) was born in 1913 and their much longed for son, Ralph, was born in 1915. ln the fall of 1918, the Wilson family moved to Ottawa and in December of that same year, Anna, was born to Cairine and Norman. ln March of 1920, Angus was born, followed by Robert in November 1922 and finally Norma in August 1925. Their family was now complete with eight children. But Cairine was to come to realize that there was more to life than caring for children and home and fulfilling social obligations at her husband's side. She was highly intelligent and was becoming increasingly restless in her role. She began to put her organizing skills into practice and became very involved in several different associations within the Liberal Party.

Cairine Wilson assumed the office of joint president of the Eastern Ontario Liberal Association in June of 1921, a significant year - the year when Canadian women were first eligible to vote in a federal election. Cairine was also to play a significant role in the formation of the Ottawa Women's Liberal Club and served as president of the club for three years. Despite Cairine's ability to inspire and motivate women, she never regarded herself as being a radical feminist. lnstead, Cairine preferred to promote the belief that women had special qualities, virtues and interests that could be used in the efforts of making the world a better place.

ln 1928 the "Persons" case came before the Supreme Court of Canada. The debate arose when Emily Murphy, a Judge from Edmonton, challenged that the phrase "qualified Persons" in Section 24 of the British North America Act, which reads "The Governor General shall ... summon qualified Persons to the Senate ... " meant both men and women. The case was won - Canadian women were now persons in the eyes of the law. Four months later, on February 15, 1930, Cairine Wilson was appointed Canada's first woman senator by her close friend, Mackenzie King. Norman Wilson's conventional upbringing was of the belief that a woman's place was in the home, but he accepted the situation and was a proud supporter of his wife in her new role.

During the coming years, Cairine's devout faith and her heart for women, young people and those who were generally disadvantaged or in need, saw her heavily involved in causes too numerous to mention. She gave much time and energy to the Mackay lnstitute, which was eventually known as the Mackay Centre for Deaf and Crippled Children in Montreal. ln 1930 Cairine joined the League of Nations Society in Canada and eventually became the Society's first woman president. It was while in this position, around 1938, that Cairine began her long, hard and successful campaign, for the cause of Jewish refugees escaping the harsh treatment under Nazi rule in Europe.

Over the next few years, thousands of refugees entered Canada from various European countries which led to Cairine's next campaign - to improve the conditions of the camps in Canada where the refugees were being housed.

ln 1949 Senator Wilson was appointed as one of five senior Canadian delegates to the General Assembly of the United Nations, and again, was the first woman to do so. The topic of refugees and stateless persons was on the agenda, a subject Cairine was well familiar with. She continued to promote this cause for the rest of her life.

ln July of 1956, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and finally cancer led to the deterioration and eventual death of Cairine's beloved Norman. The passing of her devoted husband, the loving father and grandfather and amiable and kind host to their many guests, left a huge void in her life.

ln 1960, Cairine herself was diagnosed with cancer and osteoporosis and was to experience one setback after another over the next two years. The following year she fell in the Senate building and broke her right hip and after returning home from hospital, fell off a chair in her home, breaking the other hip. On December 30, while retiring for the night, she suffered another mishap and broke her right shoulder. ln February of 1962, Cairine was admitted to hospital with a recurrence of cancer and eventually died on March 3rd at the age of 77.

Cairine Reay Wilson left a legacy of many "firsts" for women and was, without a doubt, a "Mackay who made her mark!"

lnformation for this article taken from FIRST PERSON, A Biography of Cairine Wilson, Canada's First Woman Senator by Valerie Knowles; published by Dundurn Press Limited.

Back Button Home Button Next Button