Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Transforming Canadian Prisons:
Canadian Christian Heritage
By Jane Harris Zsovan
“Her life might have been much easier. But this was the path she chose—the craggy
Eulogy for Agnes Macphail, Canadian Prison Reformer
According to the media and a lot of right wing activists; good Christians,
especially evangelicals, should want tougher sentences and harsher treatment
of ‘criminals.’ But history just doesn’t bearup with that perception.
Canadian prison reformers - including Father of Confederation George Brown,
Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and Canada’s first female Member of Parliament,
Agnes Macphail -- have often been motivated by their Christian faith.
John George Diefenbaker’s interest in the rights of prisoners and the accused
began when he was a defence lawyer. Convinced that innocent men were executed
and that the Crown won too many of its cases, the Evangelical Christian lawyer
became a staunch defender of presumption of innocence and protecting the
rights of the accused. His commitment to equity under the law led to the creation of
the Canadian Bill of Rights, and spurred his participation in the crusade to end of
capital punishment in Canada.
Diefenbaker followed the trail of 19th Century prison reformers including
Father of Confederation, George Brown. In 1848, Brown, a staunch Presbyterian,
was appointed Secretary to a Legislative Commission of Enquiry into prison conditions
at the Provincial Penitentiary at Kingston. His investigation found ample
evidence of cruelty and bad management and led to the firing of prison warden.
Brown’s 1949 report condemned the “most frightful oppression – revolting inhumanity”
in the Kingston Penitentiary. His recommendations sound positively 21st
century: separating hardened criminals, first offenders, and juveniles; envisioning
rehabilitation and aftercare programs; and appointing of permanent, salaried prison
Nearly a century later, Agnes Macphail took up Brown’s crusade, turning his
recommendations into law. Elected Canada’s first female Member of Parliament in 1921, Macphail was a woman of faith. At 18, drawn to her Aunt’s and Uncle’s social conscience while she attended teacher’s college; she joined the joined their church, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. But she didn’t spend much time reading the Book of Mormon. Instead she spent hours reading and underlining passages in Old and the New Testaments. She was particularly fond of prophecies in the Book of Isaiah. Macphail eventually rejoined mainstream Christianity, attending
and teaching Sunday School at Don Mills Agnes Macphail United Church. She often prayed silently for guidance before votes in Parliament.
Macphail considered her political crusades for women’s rights, peace, religious
tolerance, farmer’s rights, social reform, and prisoner rights, to be a holy
mission against the corrupt and powerful interests she believed controlled mainstream
In 1929, she was appointed as Canada’s first woman delegate to the League
of Nations in Geneva. In 1932, became one of the founders of the Co-operative
Commonwealth Federation (CCF) by bringing the United Farmers of Ontario
into the party.
But it was her work – building on some of the recommendations George
Brown made nearly a century earlier – to end the suffering of prisoners and their
families that left the biggest mark on Canadian society. Like Brown she wanted
young offenders separated from hardened adult prisoners. She was horrified
the fact that many prisoners were repeat offenders. She grieved at the plight of the
wives and children of inmates -- most of whom were left destitute while men were
imprisoned again and again. Just as Brown’s lobbying had led to the
1848 Commission of Enquiry, Macphail’s lobbying led the 1938 Royal Commission
that formed the basis of post World War II prison reform..
After losing her parliamentary seat in 1940, a family crisis prompted her to take
charge of raising her nieces and nephews.
She supported her new household by taking in boarders. During this period of
domestic responsibility, she remained on the executive of the Canadian Civil Liberties Union and the Canadian Association for Adult Education.
It was a short break from politics.
Representing the CCF, she became the first female Member of the Ontario Legislature
in 1943. Her riding was elected for York East. As an MPP, she fought to
improve provincial jails for women. Her work led to the founding of the Elizabeth
Fry Society of Toronto.
Fighting several illnesses during herlater years, she retired in 1951. She died at
age 63, in 1954.