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Profiles of Alberta Women

Louise McKinney

Louise McKinney
Photo taken for the legislature. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Personal life

On September 22, 1868 Louise McKinney (née Crummey) was born in Frankville, Ontario. The sixth of ten children, she grew up in a Methodist home and attended school in Frankville. While she aspired to become a doctor, her situation did not allow for it, and she instead attended Ottawa Normal School where she studied to become a teacher. After graduating, she taught for seven years in Ontario before moving to North Dakota. It was there that she met her husband James and began a lifelong affiliation with the temperance movement and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), an organization that advocated for a strengthening of family life and the protection of the home from the evil influences of alcohol consumption. During Louise’s time, the three primary goals of the organization in Alberta were the prohibition of alcohol, women’s suffrage, and supporting the settlement of immigrants.

Women’s Christian Temperance Union

Louise and James, who was a fellow temperance activist, moved back to Canada from the United States in 1903. They lived in Claresholm, a town in the Northwest Territories that became a part of Alberta in 1905, and James farmed on land adjacent to town. The couple soon began to leave a mark on their new home, building the first church in the area and spreading the message of temperance. Louise founded a local chapter of the WCTU, and went on to establish many more branches in Alberta and Saskatchewan over her lifetime.

She held numerous positions within the various chapters of the WCTU, including president of the Alberta WCTU, superintendent of the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction of the WCTU, and vice-president of the Dominion WCTU from 1908-1930. In her role as vice-president, she traveled extensively, speaking in Canada, the United States, and Europe on the evils of alcohol and calling for the protection of the family through women’s suffrage. As Superintendent of the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction she advocated for incorporation of temperance education in schools, lobbying teachers, departments of education, and the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan to include instruction on the dangers of alcohol and cigarettes.

The lobbying of Louise and the WCTU bore fruit in 1916, when Alberta passed a prohibition law, becoming one of the first provinces in Canada to do so. Accompanying this temperance push was a resistance to the power that liquor organizations held in Alberta through contributions to political parties. Resistance to such partisan influences and her experiences lobbying for the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction would inform Louise’s practices when she stepped into politics in 1917.

Political work

The Alberta provincial election of 1917 was the first in which certain women were allowed to run, having won suffrage and the right to hold provincial office in 1916.1 Resisting the influence of special interest groups such as liquor lobbies, Louise ran as the Non-Partisan League (NPL) candidate in Claresholm, beating out Liberal candidate William Moffatt with 55.60% of the vote. The election and Louise’s victory marked the first time a female legislator was elected in Canada or the British Empire. While Louise takes the distinction of being first, it should be noted Roberta MacAdams also won a seat, but happened to be sworn in after Louise as she was a military representative elected overseas.

Once in office, Louise established herself as a capable debater, participating actively in the deliberations over many bills in the Assembly. She retained her focus on prohibition, working to ensure that laws were effective and enforced, but also broadened her scope to include issues of social welfare for immigrants and women. She advocated for issues including aid for disabled persons, legal status of widows and divorced wives, and social welfare for vulnerable women, including immigrants and widows.

One enduring piece of legislation in which Louise played a key role was the Dower Act, which Louise introduced with Henrietta Muir Edwards. Passed in 1917, the Dower Act sought to provide protections to spouses, usually women, whose names may not be on a property title. Under the Dower Act, a spouse who was not listed on the title of property owned by their partner was granted rights to a home, known as a life estate. This ensured that if the property owner died, their surviving spouse retained the right to live on the homestead or in the family home. Additionally, in the case of a divorce the act prevented the property owner from seeking to sell the property when divorce proceedings were ongoing.

If woman is to succeed in developing strong moral principles in her family she will keep a close touch with God and the church. I have never been willing to admit that women were essentially more religious than men, and yet I hold that the woman who fosters a religious atmosphere in the home has done much to anchor and strengthen the life of the husband, and to make it possible for him to be strong and true in the strain and worry of business life; and father, mother and children all need to cultivate the spiritual and to identify themselves with the church of God, as the recognized agency for developing high ideals and fostering a love for and a vital interest in our fellow men, both of which find their highest expression in service.

Louise McKinney, “Where Are Canadian Women Going – Back to Their Homes or Continue in Business Life?”, Canadian Home Journal, August 1919.

Methodist and United Church work

In 1921 Louise again ran for provincial office in Claresholm, this time as a member of the United Farmers of Alberta. She lost to Thomas Milnes by 46 votes, marking the end of her time as a politician. However, Louise continued to work for women in Alberta, particularly through the Methodist and later United Church, where she served in a variety of roles.

Louise served the church as an accredited lay preacher, as well as superintendent for her church’s Sunday School. She was also a leading figure with the United Church of Canada’s Woman’s Missionary Society after the United Church’s formation. In 1925 she participated as a delegate to the Methodist General Conference, the final one before the unification and creation of the United Church.

After unification she continued her involvement, attending the first General Council of the United Church of Canada. She pushed for the Methodist church to allow women to become ministers, a case she also made to the United Church when it was formed from a union of the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational churches in 1925. Louise was involved in the campaign and plans for the union and was one of four women who were present to add their signatures to the unification document known as the Basis of Union.

Person's Case

In 1927 Louise participated in a petitioning of the Canadian government as a member of what has become known as the Famous Five, a group of five Alberta women including Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, and Louise. The women met in Emily Murphy’s home in Edmonton and drafted a petition for the Canadian government to direct the Supreme Court to address the issue of whether or not women could be appointed to the Senate of Canada. While some Canadian women could by that time vote and hold office, they were not permitted to sit on the Senate due to the narrow interpretation of the phrase ‘qualified persons’ in the British North America (BNA) Act, the law that (among other things) determined who could sit on the Senate. In 1867 when the BNA Act was written, ‘persons’ was interpreted as only referring to men. As the BNA Act did not explicitly state whether or not women should be included, the narrow interpretation of persons stood, and women were not allowed to be appointed to the Senate through to the early 20th century.

After the initial petition from the Famous Five, the Supreme Court of Canada considered the question, but ultimately unanimously decided that women were not “persons” under the BNA Act, and could not sit in the Senate. The Five appealed the decision, and the case went to the Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council in London, England, which overturned the Supreme Court’s decision. The case, which became known as the Person’s Case, stands as a pivotal moment in the history of women’s rights and constitutional interpretation in Canada.

After the Persons Case, Louise continued to participate in activist organizations. She was appointed as the Vice-President of Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE), an imperialist women’s charity group that supported a variety of causes, including child welfare and honouring Canadians who lost their lives or suffered disabilities in war. Louise also continued to work with the WCTU, serving as both the president of the Dominion WCTU and the vice-president of the World WCTU, a position to which she was appointed in 1931 at the World’s WCTU convention in Toronto. Soon after returning from the Toronto convention Louise was diagnosed with cancer and she passed away in Claresholm on July 10, 1931 at the age of 63.

Her contributions to Canadian women were recognized in 1939, when she was named a Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada. Additionally, in 2009 the Canadian Senate recognized Louise and the other members of the Famous Five as honorary senators. She is also commemorated by the Louise McKinney Post-Secondary Scholarship, awarded annually by the Government of Alberta and the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case.

With the Methodist and United churches, Louise McKinney brought a principled piety to her championing of women and women’s issues in Alberta. As a teacher, preacher, and politician she wrought change in Alberta and Canada both through legislation and through the founding of and support for many historic and impactful organizations. From her work on suffrage and temperance with the WCTU and the NPL to her role in the landmark Persons Case, Louise has left many marks on the history of women’s rights in Alberta and Canada.

Read more about Louise McKinney


1 While women’s suffrage was won in Alberta in 1916, it should be noted that not all women were included. Chinese and Japanese women were excluded until the 1940s, and First Nations women were not granted the right to vote until 1965.

Student & Academic Services for The Alberta Women's Memory Project - Last Updated March 03, 2022

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