February 15, 1930 saw the appointment of Canada’s first woman senator. When remarking on Cairine Wilson’s elevation to the Senate, the Ottawa Journal observed, “As for the appointment itself, it is an excellent one. Mrs. Wilson is the very antithesis of the short-haired woman reformer, is the exact opposite of the unlovely female type which talks of Freud and complexes and the latest novel and poses as being intellectual. She is of the much more appealing and competent kind who makes a success of their job of taking care of a home and rearing a family before meddling with and trying to make a success of everything else.”
The subject of this editorial was born on February 4, 1885, in Montreal to Robert Mackay, one of Canada’s most powerful businessmen and later a Liberal senator, and Jane Baptist, the daughter of a lumber baron from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. As befitted a member of a wealthy Scottish-Canadian family, the future senator grew up in a mansion on Sherbrooke Street West in the heart of Montreal’s famous Square Mile. After marrying Norman Wilson, a former Liberal MP, in 1909, Cairine moved to Rockland, Ontario, where her husband had become manager of the W.C. Edwards and Company lumber mills.
Following the family’s move to Ottawa in 1918, the young mother (she had eight children) became a conscientious worker for numerous community and national organizations. She also plunged into politics, but despite becoming the organizing genius behind the National Federation of Liberal Women of Canada (1928) and the chief architect of an organization of young Liberals, the Twentieth Century Liberal Association (1930), she was virtually unknown outside Ottawa and Liberal Party circles when she was appointed to the Senate by Mackenzie King, a family friend. A hard-working senator, she became noted chiefly for her work on behalf of refugees. In fact, when she died on March 3, 1962, she was known to the thousands of refugees she helped as “Mother of the Refugees.”