Ontario’s first female cabinet minister still going strong at 97

By Steve Paikin - Published on February 8, 2019
Margaret Birch
Margaret Birch, 97, is still a big name in Ontario political circles. (Steve Paikin)

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Yes, she still watches the occasional episode of question period on television. Otherwise, Margaret Birch mostly avoids politics these days.

“From time to time, I get asked to endorse candidates,” the 97-year-old acknowledges. “But I’ve been out of it for a long time, and I just don’t know the players like I used to.”

It’s worth noting that almost five decades after Birch first stood for provincial parliament in the east end of Scarborough, candidates still seek out her Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval — because, for many, Birch is still a big name in political circles.

If you’re not a student of Ontario politics, you may not know that Birch is one of the most significant pioneers in Queen’s Park history. In September 1972, then-premier Bill Davis appointed her to cabinet as minister without portfolio, responsible for youth. She thus became the first woman to be appointed to the Ontario government’s executive council.

Then, 45 years ago this month, Davis promoted Birch to Provincial Secretary for Social Development, where she served for nearly another decade.

Two and a half years ago, on her 95th birthday, I got together with Birch to write something about her place in history. We had another visit this past weekend — and, truth be told, she looks as if she hasn’t aged a day. She still lives with her son Randy in Pickering.

Her daughter, Jane, still frequently looks in on her. And she’s enjoying being the grandmother to three and great-grandmother to six.

She can still climb the flight of stairs to the top floor of the house with ease, although she acknowledges the unpleasant realities that come with getting older. Her hearing is starting to go, she says, confessing, “I’m too lazy and too old to go out and get hearing aids!”

Birch loves reminiscing about her days in government. “People were honest and decent back then,” she says, suggesting that she’s not sure they’re quite as honest or decent today. She’s still a huge fan of Bill Davis, who helped her break the gender barrier not just in cabinet, but also at the Tory hangout in downtown Toronto known as the Albany Club, whose membership was male-only until Birch came along.

“I remember one day in a cabinet meeting there was one minister who was giving me a hard time,” she recalls. “Bill Davis just shut him down. He wouldn’t stand for anyone mistreating me.” The former premier, now 89, and his former minister still chat on the phone every now and then.

So do Birch and another member of the Davis cabinet, Dennis Timbrell.

“Margaret and I talk every few months, and she is as sharp as ever,” Timbrell told me in an email. When Timbrell ran for the Progressive Conservative leadership in 1985, hoping to succeed Davis, Birch was one of his campaign co-chairs.

“She and I are the last two of 15 PCs elected [for the first time] in Metro Toronto in 1971,” Timbrell adds. “So I look forward to our lengthy chats for many years to come.”

Timbrell’s comment highlights a sad reality of living into one’s late 90s. Most of Birch’s political colleagues have died. The list includes former premier Frank Miller, and former cabinet ministers John Clement, John Rhodes, Leo Bernier, Frank Drea, Tom Wells, Gordon Carton, Allan Grossman, Larry Grossman (Allan’s son), George McCague, Arthur Meen, Margaret Scrivener, Keith Norton, John Smith, Bob Welch, and Dalton Bales.

There has been one significant change in Birch’s life since we last got together: she is no longer permitted to drive. But her car still sits in her garage, and she says she won’t sell it.

“Every now and then, I go out into the garage, look at the car, and dream of saying, ‘To hell with it — I’m getting in and driving off!’” she jokes. “But then common sense takes over.”

The last time Birch was at Queen’s Park was a little more than two years ago, when the Association of Former Parliamentarians celebrated her place in history. Female MPPs from all parties paid tribute to her for her role in paving the path they now tread.

As our 90-minute visit comes to an end, Birch urges me to call on her again, then gives me a warm and strong hug. “It really gives me a lift when you visit,” she says.

She should only know how much I enjoy these walks down memory lane with her.

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