My Tribute to First Female Cabinet Minister MPP Margaret Birch

Of all the milestones over the last century that have advanced Ontario women’s participation in political life, three in particular stand out.

In 1917, Ontario women secured the right to vote in provincial elections.

In 1943, the first women MPPs were elected to the Ontario Legislature.

And in 1972, Margaret Birch – the gracious and remarkable woman we are honouring today – took her seat around the Cabinet table, becoming the first woman in Ontario to participate directly in government decision-making as a member of the executive council.

For all of us in this house but especially for women, Margaret Birch is “one of those on whose shoulders we stand”: an inspiring trail-blazer, a dedicated advocate, and a tireless public servant whose name will forever be inscribed in the history books of our province.

Margaret’s story began in southwestern Ontario. Born and raised in Leamington, Margaret was forced to quit school at the age of 12 to help care for her younger siblings after her father grew ill. By the age of 16, she was working for $3 a day as a tobacco picker. She later moved on to the job of quality control at the Heinz plant, where she oversaw the labelling of ketchup bottles. Her future legacy as a barrier-breaker and change-maker in Ontario politics was presaged by the grit, tenacity and determination she displayed throughout those challenging early years.

In many ways, Margaret’s path to elected office is typical of many women’s entry into public life: she became involved in her community, she saw a problem, and she wanted to fix it.

After moving to Scarborough with her husband, newspaper editor Guy Birch, and their two children, Margaret began volunteering at the local hospital where she experienced firsthand the impact on patients and families when healthcare needs are not being met. In 1962 she took her first run for office at the municipal level, with a platform focused on bringing more hospital beds to Scarborough. Although she did not win that election, she succeeded in getting approval for a new hospital and was invited to sit on the hospital’s board of governors. Of all her achievements, it is her role as a founding member of Scarborough Centenary Hospital (now part of the Rouge Valley Health System) that she is most proud. When the hospital expanded in 1986, the Margaret Birch wing was officially opened to honour this important contribution.

With her intelligence, commitment, and passion for healthcare, she was a natural choice to chair the Scarborough Board of Health in 1963 and four years later she joined the mental health council, travelling across the province to review mental health services. Shortly after being named Scarborough citizen of the year in 1970, she was approached about running in the 1971 Ontario election, and put her name on the ballot as the Progressive Conservative candidate in Scarborough East.

It’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like for Margaret as one of only two women out of the 121 MPPs who were elected that year. But with her usual energy and aplomb, she set to work as a backbench MPP. One year later, on Sept. 28, 1972, she was appointed Minister without Portfolio by Premier Bill Davis.

Although this barrier had been broken at the federal level some 15 years earlier, Bill Davis deserves much credit for a decision that was not without controversy. And not only did he appoint Margaret to Cabinet, he quickly promoted her to the position of Provincial Secretary for Social Development. For the next nine years she served as a “super minister” responsible for the coordination of services across six different ministries involving health care, social services, education.

The door to the Cabinet room wasn’t the only door that Margaret opened during her time at Queen’s Park. Told she could not attend a political speech at the downtown Toronto Albany Club because female members were not permitted, Margaret complained to the premier. “If I’m good enough to sit in this cabinet with all these men,” she said, “surely I’m good enough to be a member of the Albany Club.” Premier Davis agreed, and Margaret Birch became the first female member of that once male bastion.

During her 14 years in government, Margaret advanced policy to improve the lives of women, youth and seniors. Her passion and some of her most effective advocacy, however, was for veterans and people living with mental illness. She frequently toured facilities and came up with programming alternatives that reduced isolation. Not only was she a pioneer in her achievements in the legislature, she was also a pioneer in the field of mental health. She fought tirelessly for less institutionalized models of care.

Margaret’s efforts and success demonstrated to Ontarians that the opinions and contributions of women matter, and that better decisions are made when women are involved in making them. She opened the door to opportunity for all of the women sitting in this Legislature now and in the future.

Margaret, on behalf of the Ontario NDP caucus, I am honoured to pay tribute to you today. We thank you for your leadership in paving the way for women’s participation in the political decision-making processes that affect them, their families, and their communities … and for inspiring us to continue breaking barriers until women’s full equality is achieved.