First Person: A Biography of Cairine Wilson, Canada’s First Woman Senator

First Person: A Biography of Cairine Wilson, Canada’s First Woman Senator

Cairine Wilson, Canada’s first woman senator, was raised in one of Montreal’s most affluent and influential families in an atmosphere of strict Presbyterianism, tempered by rugged Scots liberalism. She early displayed an interest in politics and, as a daughter of a Liberal senator, was befriended by many notable politicians, including Wilfrid Laurier.

Wilson’s appointment to the Senate in 1930 was an historic event that followed four months after the winning of the Persons case by five Alberta feminists led by Judge Emily Murphy. Although the appointment raised controversy at the time, it launched a political career characterized by passion, commitment and reform. Cairine Wilson, whose work on behalf of refugees and the world’s needy was legendary, served in the Senate for over 30 years. She also found time to raise a large family of eight children.

To Order: First Person (ISBN 1-55002-029-3 hb. 1-55002-030-7pbk) is published by Dundurn Press, Toronto, Canada and is distributed by University of Toronto Press. The book can be ordered toll free in Canada and the U.S. by telephone (800) 565-9523, fax (800) 221-9985 or email It can also be ordered online through or


Valerie Knowles has written an absorbing biography of Wilson and the times in which she lived. The study is thorough but not pedantic, and rich in detail and interpretation.

– Lorna Marsden, The Globe and Mail, October 29, 1988

Valerie Knowles’s wholly objective study of Cairine Wilson not only allows the true nature of this formidable woman to shine through, but sets her life firmly within the politics and society of her day.

Joy L. Santink, Ontario History, Spring, 1989


Chapter Two: The Mackays

Cairine Wilson was born into a family of wealth. Perhaps even more important, she was born into a Scots-Canadian family that figured prominently in Montreal’s English-Scots establishment, an insular society that flourished in Montreal’s famous Square Mile, those several blocks in central Montreal where the rich built their mansions in the last half of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth. Until World War 1 thinned the ranks of their youth, they held undisputed sway – a colonial gentry slavishly imitating British social manners and mores and marrying within their own exclusive social circle.

When the future senator was born, in 1885, the British Empire was approaching its zenith and privileged Victorians everywhere basked in opulence and smugness. It was an epochal year for the young dominion of Canada. The financier and politician, Donald Smith, in an act charged with symbolism, drove a plain iron spike into a railway tie at Craigellachie, British Columbia, thereby completing the celebrated Canadian Pacific Railway and welding East to West. In a quite different sequence of events, the messianic Métis leader, Louis Riel, met his end on a jail gallows in Regina after leading his people in the North West Rebellion against the government at Ottawa. With his death he opened up a great rift between French and English-speaking Canadians, because while the former regarded him as a hero and a martyr, English-speaking Canadians denounced him as a rebel and a traitor who richly deserved his fate.