The inspirational story of Ontario’s first female cabinet minister

By Steve Paikin - Published on Jun 13, 2016
Margaret Birch poses with a photo of her old boss, Bill Davis.

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On a day when five female MPPs were newly named to Ontario’s cabinet, I think it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate a woman who blazed that trail 44 years ago. 

She lived the first half-century of her life without any pretence of getting into politics or having her name indelibly inscribed in the history books of her province.  But Margaret Birch did both those things at a time when being a woman in politics was infinitely more difficult than it is now. And so today, on her 95th birthday, let’s recall her inspirational story.

Here was the setting: it was the summer of 1972, a year and a half since the 41-year-old Bill Davis had become premier of Ontario. People may complain today that our legislatures aren’t representative enough of the people they serve, and that’s true. But in 1972, the Progressive Conservative government had 69 seats and only two of them were occupied by women. 

Believe it or not, at this point there had still never been a female Ontario cabinet minister, despite the fact that prime minister John Diefenbaker had appointed the first federal female cabinet minister in 1957. That was Ellen Fairclough from Hamilton.

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By the summer of 1972, increasing numbers of Ontarians were wondering why Davis’s cabinet was still exclusively male.

Enter Margaret Birch.

She was an ideal choice to break this gender barrier. Given her hard-scrabble background in Leamington, she was tough as nails, even if she projected the temperament of a pleasant, middle-class woman living in Scarborough. And at 51, she already had a ton of experience in a variety of fields.

Born Margaret Stewart, Birch quit school at age 12 because her father got cancer and her mother had to work to support the family. There were four younger siblings to care for and a baby on the way. Remarkably, her mother was back at work three days after delivering her sixth child, at home, with the assistance of a midwife. But it was left to Margaret to take care of the family.

By age 16, she was working in southwestern Ontario’s tobacco fields for $3 a day. Then she got a job at the Heinz plant, where she had to make sure the labels went on the ketchup bottles properly.

“I never felt deprived,” says Birch, whom I visited at her home in Pickering, to interview her for a book I’m currently writing on Davis. “And a lack of education never held me back from what I wanted to do.”

Margaret married newspaper editor Guy Birch. She moved to Scarborough, had two kids, and began volunteering for the local hospital. Eventually, She worked her way up to chair of the Scarborough board of health in 1963. Four years later, she joined the mental health council and the social planners council. In 1970, she was chosen Scarborough’s citizen of the year.

That prompted a call from Scarborough cabinet minister Tom Wells, who successfully convinced Birch to stand for the Tories in the 1971 general election. She picked one of the most closely contested ridings: Scarborough East. The Liberals had won it during the previous election with 34.2 per cent, with the Tories close behind at 33.1 per cent and the NDP in third with 32.7 per cent. But in 1971, Birch took it with 41 per cent of the votes.

Her first mission as a backbench MPP was to create new programs for youth (Ontario was still more than 30 years away from creating a ministry for children and youth). And her partner in creating those summer job programs was a 17-year-old  PC activist named John Tory. [And now you know the rest of the story.]

Birch obviously made a good impression because a year later, while part of a provincial delegation travelling in England, she got a call from Premier Davis saying, “Margaret, please come home immediately. You’re going to be a cabinet minister.”

“She was an extremely pleasant lady,” Davis once told me, as to why he appointed her to cabinet. “She was from Scarborough. Everybody liked her. She was intelligent. What more do you want?”

On Sept. 28, 1972, the premier appointed Birch minister without portfolio, and in doing so paved the way for others who have followed. As she reminisces about those days, Birch insists she never felt intimidated or awkward about being the only woman in the room. Apparently, that’s the way it always was on her volunteer committees. And it may surprise you to know that Birch says she never had to deal with boorish or sexist behaviour in cabinet.

“I never heard an off-colour joke ever,” she insists. “Bill Davis wouldn’t have tolerated it.”

But the Ontario cabinet wasn’t the only institution Birch wanted to open up. When federal PC Leader Robert Stanfield was to make a speech at the Albany Club  ̶  downtown Toronto’s Tory haunt since the days of Sir John A. Macdonald  ̶  Birch was prohibited from attending. The club didn’t permit female members.

Birch complained to the premier. “If I’m good enough to sit in this cabinet with all these men, surely I’m good enough to be a member of the Albany Club,” she said. 

“You’re right,” Davis answered. “We’ll work on that.”

And that’s how Margaret Birch also became the first female member of the Albany Club. Her proposer was none other than the 18th premier of Ontario.

Davis gave his minister without portfolio a wide berth to tackle issues she cared about. She toured all kinds of health care facilities and was appalled at the lack of attention and care residents were receiving. She worked with six different ministries to get improvements made.

“Some of the people were so lonely, they just wanted to hold my hand,” she recalls. So Birch arranged to have music and dance parties brought into seniors’ homes, nursing residences, and veterans’ hospitals. It may seem like a little thing, but she got “happy hour” introduced in the veterans’ hospital so former soldiers could enjoy a wee nip at the end of the day. “I went to Bill Davis and got support for that,” Birch says. “It gave people something to look forward to.”

She toured mental health facilities (then called asylums) and emerged in tears after seeing people in cages. She told the minister and deputy minister of health that Scarborough needed a new hospital with better mental health services, and worked hard to get both. Opposition members frequently approached her with other ideas to improve things. It was a good and collegial time to be in politics.

In 1974, Davis promoted Birch to provincial secretary for social development. She left cabinet in 1983 and retired from politics in 1985 after 14 years in government, all of it during Davis’s tenure as premier.

Today, Birch lives in Pickering with her son Randy. “He spoils me, which is probably why I’m doing so well,” she joked in a phone conversation I had with her last week. In fact, Birch is in astonishingly good health. She did slip and break her right wrist three months ago, but the cast is off now and she’s back to driving. “I passed my test with flying colours!” she boasted. “But I was so frustrated trying to eat with my left hand.”

During my visit a year ago, she mounted a flight of stairs to show me some pictures in her upstairs den with such alacrity, I was amazed.

It is not an exaggeration to say she looks 15 years younger than her 95 years. And she’s still a huge fan of the man who made history by making her Ontario’s first female cabinet minister.

Happy birthday, Margaret Birch.

Update: An earlier version of this article stated that Margaret Birch was born Margaret Bowyer. Her family name at birth was in fact Stewart. TVO apologizes for the error. 

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