Louise McKinney
  The First Woman Elected to a Legislature in the British Empire

This text is copied from Elections Canada’s Electoral Insight Magazine, January 2001:

By Wayne Brown
Co-Editor, Electoral Insight, Elections Canada

Four years before any woman would win a seat in Canada's Parliament, Louise Crummy McKinney was elected to the provincial legislature of Alberta. With her 1917 victory, she became the first woman to take her seat in a legislature in the entire British Empire.

Barely a year earlier, Canada's provinces had begun to recognize the right of women to vote and run for office at the provincial level. Alberta was actually the third province to do so, in the spring of 1916, on the heels of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. McKinney became a member of the Alberta legislature the year before the right to vote in federal elections was extended to Canadian women at least 21 years of age, and two years before they would become eligible for election to the House of Commons. (Agnes Macphail from Ontario was the first woman elected at the federal level in 1921.)

While McKinney made history on her own, it is likely that she is actually more widely recognized as a member of the Famous Five. This was the group of five Alberta women who went all the way to the Privy Council in Britain to establish the right of women to be recognized as persons and, therefore, eligible to be appointed as senators. But McKinney's life included other remarkable achievements. She was a "homesteader" south of Calgary, a temperance advocate and the driving force behind a 1915 Alberta vote to prohibit alcohol, and the only Western Canadian woman to sign the Basis of Union, which brought three denominations together as the United Church of Canada.

McKinney was born Louise Crummy on September 22, 1868, in the tiny community of Frankville, Ontario, southwest of Ottawa. Of Irish descent, she was the second daughter in a strict Methodist family of ten children. While still a schoolgirl, she joined one of the Women's Christian Temperance Union's youth programs where the pledge recited at every meeting was, "I will never falter until this land is freed from the bonds of the distiller, brewer and government company."1 She wouldn't have known it at that time, but Louise would spend much of her life attempting to fulfill that pledge.

Author Grant MacEwan, in Mighty Women, describes Louise as "a bright girl, fun loving and popular. With a good Irish sense of humour and unusual talent in debate, qualities of leadership showed clearly." She was educated in Ontario, at Athens High School and Smiths Falls Model School, and apparently hoped to become a doctor. But in the 1880s, women were not accepted in medical school. Instead, she finished the Ottawa Normal School and taught public school in the Frankville area for several years.

In 1893, Louise travelled to North Dakota to visit a married sister. There, at the age of 26, after three years as a teacher, she became an organizer for the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In North Dakota, she met the man who would become her husband, James McKinney. He was also of Irish descent and from a small community near Ottawa, and shared her interests in people, church and prohibition. In 1896, they made the trip all the way back to Frankville so they could be married in her family's home. Then they returned to a farm in North Dakota where their son, Willard, was born. While living there, Louise travelled with other WCTU organizers to create new chapters of the organization. However, both Louise and James wanted to return to Canada and, in 1903, they joined the large movement of settlers from the Western states northward to the millions of acres of better farming land in southern Alberta, which was then still part of the Northwest Territories. (Alberta and Saskatchewan would become provinces of the Dominion of Canada in 1905.)

The McKinneys found their new homestead on a quarter section near Claresholm, south of Calgary. While James soon began building the first Methodist Church at Claresholm, Louise set up a temperance local, of which she was the first president, retaining the office for more than 25 years. But she wasn't satisfied with that. Such was her zeal to outlaw liquor that, in less than a decade, through constant travelling and letter writing, she established more than 40 WCTU chapters in Alberta and Saskatchewan. As well, she became the president of the national WCTU and a vice-president of the international organization.

MacEwan writes, "During her years in office, every westerner became aware of the organization of women workers. In her presidential capacity, she travelled extensively to keep speaking engagements, winter and summer. She personally directed most of the work of organizing and it reached the point where the mere mention of the name of Louise McKinney suggested WCTU, and vice versa." (2)

The WCTU believed that all men and women should abstain completely from alcohol and called for the prohibition of its manufacture, sale and use. It also urged the government to prohibit the sale, manufacture and importation of cigarettes. McKinney passionately preached the evils of alcohol wherever she went. The book, The Clear Spirit; Twenty Canadian Women and Their Times, published in 1973, states, "It is a little hard to present with full sympathy the devotion of women such as Mrs. McKinney to the temperance cause, since it includes a degree of what seems to be fanaticism – such as her efforts to prevent the sending of cigarettes and tobacco to the men in the trenches in World War I. (What a pity it is that so many of those earnest souls who campaigned against the evils of tobacco are not here to read the current medical literature on the subject!)." (3)

The WCTU scored its biggest victory in 1915 when Albertans, in a province-wide plebiscite, voted for prohibition. It was the male population who made that choice, because it would be another year before Alberta women would obtain the right to vote at the provincial level.

Louise McKinney and the WCTU played a lengthy and important role in obtaining the right to vote for Alberta women in 1916. It was also the first opportunity for women to be candidates for legislative office. McKinney had an interest in politics, but when she decided to run as a candidate in Alberta's 1917 provincial election, she seems to have done so largely to further the ideals closest to her heart: liquor control (because prohibition had never really been enforced) and women's rights.
McKinney was disgusted to learn that the major parties were receiving campaign contributions from the liquor companies; so disgusted, that she secured the nomination of the Non-Partisan League (an agrarian movement) in the Claresholm constituency and won election as an Independent on a prohibition platform. In fact, two women were elected in that provincial election, the other being Lt. Roberta McAdams, who was elected by the armed forces overseas. (The Alberta legislature passed a bill in 1917 providing for the overseas election of two military representatives to the legislature.) But Lt. McAdams, who was still serving overseas as a nurse, was not in the legislature on the day it opened. So McKinney obtained the distinction of being the first woman to be sworn in and to take a seat in any legislature in the British Empire.

In her maiden speech to the legislature, McKinney focused on Canada's responsibility to the returned servicemen, urging help for them so they might establish homesteads in areas with schools and transportation. A strong debater, legislator McKinney fought for stricter liquor control laws and other measures to assist immigrants, widows and separated women. She introduced a motion that led to the Dower Act, ensuring that a certain proportion of a deceased husband's property went to his widow. As well, in common with James Weir, the other Non-Partisan League member in the legislature, McKinney urged that the Dominion government take over all the coalfields in Alberta that had operating mines, and develop their unworked seams.

As McKinney herself wrote for the Woman's Century, for the first time there was an Independent section in the legislature comprised of two soldiers' representatives, two farmers' representatives and one labour representative, and that group included both of the women members. "In the office where we were sworn in and signed the roll, the men welcomed us and made us feel that they were honoured in being members of the legislative body that was thus making history ... in all the days that followed we were accepted as a matter of fact and as though we had a perfect right to be there, and one almost forgot that there was anything new in the situation."4

McKinney served only one four-year term in the Alberta legislature. She had played a prominent role in the organization of the United Farmers of Alberta (U.F.A.), which absorbed the Non-Partisan League. But she did not agree with the U.F.A.'s president, Henry Wise Wood, on the role the organization should play in politics. In the election of 1921, McKinney ran as an independent, and was defeated by only forty-six votes when a U.F.A. sweep to power claimed her seat as well. Her rigid non-drinking and non-smoking platform appears to have cost her some votes, especially among the servicemen who had returned from overseas.

McKinney seems not to have been overly disappointed with her loss and never ran again. Instead, she concentrated on her church and temperance work. Then came an even bigger defeat. Another liquor vote in Alberta, in 1923, repealed prohibition. That vote is described by author Nancy Millar in her book The Famous Five. "It was a stunning blow for Louise McKinney and the WCTU, not the least because women had the vote this time around and used it to Bring Back the Bottle. How could they? The vote was supposed to be used to build a Good Decent World. It wasn't supposed to be used for booze."

McKinney was also devoted to another issue in the early 1920s. Should a new church be formed from a union of Methodist, Congregationalist and some Presbyterian churches? Louise was in favour, and she subsequently became one of only four women in Canada (and the only woman from Western Canada) who signed the Basis of Union that created the United Church of Canada in 1925.
In 1927, ten years after McKinney's election, another and even more historic event began: the "Persons Case." The traditional interpretation of the British North America Act of 1867, which set out the powers and responsibilities of the provincial and federal governments, was that only a man could be a "person" and only qualified "persons" could be appointed to the Canadian Senate. Judge Emily Murphy, an Edmonton women's court magistrate, was appalled to realize that women were not fully defined as persons in the BNA Act.

Emily Murphy turned to four other Alberta women for support. McKinney was the second woman asked to sign Murphy's petition for personhood. The others, who would make up the Famous Five, included Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Nellie McClung. (For more on McClung, see the June 1999 edition of Electoral Insight.)

Together, they appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, but lost. Undaunted, they persuaded Prime Minister Mackenzie King to appeal the case to Canada's highest court in those days, Britain's Privy Council. Thus it was that on October 18, 1929, from a London courtroom came the landmark decision that Canadian women were indeed "persons," eligible for appointment to the Senate and participation in the final stages of enacting federal laws in Canada.

During 25 years as a senior officer of the WCTU in Canada and its world body, McKinney attended many international conferences of the organization, in such locales as Boston, Brooklyn, London, and Lausanne. In 1931, she presided over a national meeting in Toronto, where she was named first vice president of the WCTU. However, she became ill and, a few days after returning to Claresholm, died at her home. The many tributes from friends and co-workers praised her judgment, humour and perseverance. "Some 100 WCTU members from all over Canada sat in a block in the church. As they filed past the grave later, each dropped a small white ribbon onto the casket, the white ribbon being the WCTU symbol of purity and faith." (5)

Louise McKinney was 63 years of age at her death, on July 10, 1931. She was laid to rest in Claresholm, Alberta.

  1. Millar, Nancy. The Famous Five; Emily Murphy and the Case of the Missing Persons. Cochrane, Alberta: The Western Heritage Centre, 1999, pp. 83-91.
  2. MacEwan, Grant, "Louise Crummy McKinney: Death on Booze," Mighty Women, Stories of Western Canadian Pioneers. Vancouver/Toronto: Greystone,1995, pp. 138-145.
  3. Innis, Mary Quayle, ed. The Clear Spirit; Twenty Canadian Women and Their Times. Toronto: Published for the Canadian Federation of University Women by the University of Toronto Press, 1973, pp. 170-171.
  4. Cochrane, Jean. Women in Canadian Politics. Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1997, pp. 37-38.
  5. Millar, Nancy. The Famous Five; Emily Murphy and the Case of the Missing Persons. Cochrane, Alberta: The Western Heritage Centre, 1999, pp. 83-91.

Ask yourself

  • Who do I consider my mentor or role model to be?
  • Can I identify the qualities of my mentor that I admire and wish to emulate?
  • How can I work with my mentor to learn more?
  • Make a plan to use these reflections to further your personal political goals.

Copyright © 2005 | Email: info@gettingtothegate.com