The Underdogs of Social Justice: Muriel McQueen Fergusson

As a society, we have many heroes. We shower them with affection, commendation, and praise. We talk about how they have changed our lives and how they have made the world a better place. However, sometimes the greatest heroes are the ones that we never talk about. Sometimes the most amazing people are the ones we forget. That is why I am starting a sporadic series of posts about brilliant people who deserve more attention than what they currently receive and I can think of no better feminist Canadian example to start with than Muriel McQueen Fergusson.

Muriel Fergusson is one of the most amazing and inspiring historical Canadian women that no one seems to know about. She was a pioneer in the fight for women’s rights, breaking down barriers in politics and the public service. However, her efforts did not end with just making society a more equitable place for middle and upper class women as she also struggled against injustices perpetuated against the impoverished and the vulnerable in our society. She was a true unsung hero that has been mostly forgotten by Canadians today and I think she needs to be remembered and brought back into the public consciousness as an example of someone who worked tirelessly for the rights of others.

Fergusson was born in New Brunswick in 1899. She was a highly educated woman, obtaining both a Bachelor of Arts and a law degree. In 1925, Muriel Fergusson was admitted to the New Brunswick bar and became one of the first female lawyers in her province. She practiced law for only a short while before she transitioned into a life of homemaking for ten years, forming the Grand Falls Literacy Group in her spare time and taking on many other community responsibilities as well. In 1936, she returned to the practice of law when her husband took ill, working hard for several years to win the trust of his client base: men very unused to the idea of a woman lawyer. Eventually, she also took over her husband’s positions of Judge of the Probate Court, Clerk of the County Court and town solicitor of Grand Falls. In 1942, when her husband passed away, she was officially confirmed in all of these positions, adding several more accomplishments to her list of firsts for Canadian women. During the 1940s, she campaigned for the right of all women to vote in Fredericton civic elections, not just the ones who owned property. In 1950, she became the first woman to be elected to the Fredericton City Council after such a. This impressive accomplishment was followed by her achievement of the position of Deputy Mayor in 1953, another first for women. It was during this time period that she also lobbied the New Brunswick government for jail reforms, equal pay for men and women, resources for regional libraries and better representation of women in federal politics (specifically calling for a woman senator from the Maritimes).

In 1947, she continued to pioneer women’s representation in the work force when she became the regional director in charge of Family Allowances and Old Age Security. This career shift came about when she discovered that, when advertising for applicants, the department restricted applications to only men. She lobbied fiercely, proved her point valiantly, and opened such positions up for women for the first time in Canadian history. She also won the job and held the position for six years.

Fergusson was then appointed to the Senate in 1953, the third/fourth woman to do so since Confederation (she and another woman were appointed to the Senate on the same day). The Senate, for non-Canadian readers of this blog, is the Upper House in Canadian politics. Currently, there are 105 members in that chamber who provide a counter balance to the decisions and workings of the House of Commons. A major point of contention concerning the Senate is that it is unelected. However, people like Muriel Fergusson show us why such an institution can be important and valuable. In 1972, the year Fergusson became Speaker of the Senate, only 7.04% of the members in the House of Commons were women. This number fell to 6.56% in the 1974 general election. Senate members are appointed by the Prime Minister and often positions in the chamber are used to bolster the representation of minorities in Canada. Fergusson was a good example of the then Prime Minister, Louis St-Laurent, trying to better representation for women in Canada.

During her Senate tenure, Fergusson was a vocal advocate of the importance of the Senate and its role in Canadian democracy (I wish she was around today to espouse those values!). In her inaugural speech in the Senate, she stated that “If I can be of help to women in getting justice, I will”. In fact, Marguerite Ritchie, founder of the Human Rights Institute of Canada, credited Fergusson as one of the major influences that pushed for the right of women to sit on juries in criminal cases. Fergusson also advocated for fairer succession duties for widows, rehabilitation issues for women in prisons, and the expansion of unemployment insurance for married women.

Another one of her battles against injustice regarded women workers in Parliament. Fergusson was the one to call for and win the right for women to work as pages in the Senate (a practice adopted by the House of Commons only after the Senate). She also fought for the right of the first woman head of the parliamentary restaurant to be paid as much as her male predecessor. Later, when she was Speaker, Fergusson told the manager of the parliamentary restaurant that as long as she was Speaker of the Senate, all of the female servers assigned to work at her functions were to receive the same wage as the male servers.

In 1972, Fergusson was appointed Speaker of the Senate. She was the first woman to assume such a role in the Senate as well as in the House of Commons (whose first woman speaker was Jean Sauvé in 1980). In fact, her official uniform had to be specially designed as no women had ever worn Speakers’ robes. Before she accepted her position, she was serving on seven concurrent committees (the average for a Senator is one or two). While Speaker, she wrote an article entitled “Women belong in the house!” an unusual practice for the usually non-partisan Speaker. In it, she voiced her concerns over the incredibly low percentage of women in the House of Commons and called for this reality to be changed. In 1974, her tenure as Speaker ended with the general election and she returned to her tireless efforts at fighting for equality in Canada. In the fall of 1974, she called on the federal government to form a special department on aging that would work on issues facing senior citizens in Canada.

Fergusson retired from the Senate in 1975 at the age of 75, despite being appointed before the Constitutional amendment limiting Senate terms. She had been a vocal supporter of such a limit stating that the Senate needed new blood every few years in order to keep its ideas and efforts fresh and relevant. However, this exit from federal politics did not stop her work towards equality in Canada and she continued to fight for a more just society. In 1976, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in recognition of all of her efforts. She also became an activist and leader in many social welfare groups, including the Canadian Council on Aging, the Victorian Order of Nurses in New Brunswick, the Canadian Council on Social Development, the I.O.D.E., UNICEF Canada, the Girl Guides, the Elizabeth Fry Society, the Royal Canadian Legion and many others. During the 1980s, the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Foundation was established, dedicated to helping women suffering from spousal abuse by providing assistance and public education. At 94 years of age, Fergusson called the then Justice Minister, Allan Rock, to discuss the problems of women’s representation in the Senate, citing the fact that there were still three times as many men represented in the Upper Chamber, a problem that needed attention immediately.

In 1997, Muriel Fergusson died. She was 97 years old. Speaking in her honour, the then Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, Margaret McCain, described Fergusson’s life, self and legacy rather succinctly:

“She was a tiny woman with a soft voice and a gentle manner. She knocked down many barriers without ever being provocative or strident. She was right, she knew she was right, and she didn’t give up.”

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, in his condolences to the Fergusson family, stated that:

“Throughout her career as a lawyer, municipal politician, public servant and senator, Muriel Fergusson fought with great determination for women and social justice for the poor and elderly. She personified the values of fairness and compassion – values that are deeply important to Canadians.”

At her tribute in the Senate, one of her former colleagues, Senator Mabel M. DeWare, described her as one of:

“…quiet determination, without bombast: her rational and careful approach of putting the building blocks in place; that was what so endeared her to all whose lives she touched.”

In short, Muriel Fergusson was an amazing individual. She was dedicated to the rights of women, the poor and the aged. She pushed for change in a time when change was a particularly threatening, scary thing. She was a fearless politician and social justice advocate and every Canadian should know her name and her story so that they can be inspired to pick up her many torches.

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