Agnes Macphail, agrarian populism, 1928

In this speech in 1928, MP Agnes Macphail spoke out of behalf of rural people

In 1921, Agnes Macphail became the first woman elected to the House of Commons. She represented the United Farmers of Ontario, an agrarian populist group which refused to become a political party or to ally with any of the existing ones. Macphail believed that agriculture was the economic bedrock of the country but that farmers were not getting a fair deal. For that, she blamed the old-line parties, the Liberal and Conservatives. In this speech in reply to the budget in 1928, she talked about the crisis facing the rural community, and she advocated for democratic reform that would make Parliament more representative of farm people and others.

“The conscience of the nation lies in the country”

We come again to a consideration of the budget brought down by the minister of finance . . . I think it is a rich man’s budget and I am in the splendid position of saying that I do not like it and of voting in accordance with my views.

Agriculture is still the main business of the Canadian people. The nation’s prosperity depends on a bumper crop. It has been well said that the agricultural returns are the barometer of national prosperity. The following words were used by Aristotle: “The first attention should be paid to that which is in accordance with nature; for by nature agriculture is first; next come all those things which are derived from the earth, such as mining and other arts of like kind.”

Roots of the tree

Or as has been often said: “The well-being of the people is like a tree.”  Agriculture and other primary industries are its roots, manufacturing and commerce its branches and its life; if the root is injured, the leaves fall, the branches break away and the tree dies.

The roots of the tree of Canada’s national life have been injured. We have, for a young and rich country, a depleted and impoverished agricultural industry. In this young country agriculture has not held its own people, nor its power and place of influence. I regret it, but it is true. I do not think anyone in this house will care to deny that our educational, religious, business, and political policies have been framed, not with rural needs in mind but rather, whether consciously or unconsciously, directly antagonistic to those needs.

The result is clear to anybody who cares to look around, namely, that our people are leaving the land in numbers that would worry any government, even this one. It does not seem to go further than worry with them, but still it worries them. This great mass of people is disappearing from the open spaces into crowded places which we call cities in either Canada or the United States. To my mind one of the saddest things is that the individual is lost in the great mass of human beings and so this constant robbing of the open places does not enrich the cities to the extent that it robs the country . . .

Country living

Country life develops thoughtful, wholesome, and genuine people, to a greater extent than any other life, and I think it is true to say that in the last analysis the conscience of the nation lies in the country. I think we can all bear testimony, if we care to, to the fact that in cities and towns the conventions of life veneer even the ways of our friends and it is in the country that we find the beauty of simplicity and sometimes the bluntness of unaffected candour. Country living makes for character and because of the need of character in all national undertakings, and because of the importance of agriculture in our national life, we see how disastrous the results must be if people continue to leave the land. Aside from economic consequences, it heralds the approach of the time when the country will no longer furnish that leadership in business and public life which has been so influential in shaping the course of events . . .

Political philosophy

Before I proceed further let me say something about our idea. We are here not to work as a party. In that awful session of 1926 we were accused every day of being Grits or Tories although as a matter of fact we were neither. We are not interested in either in Liberals or Conservatives, except personally; as a party we are interested in neither.

We want such amendments in the rules and usages of the house as will enable new groups to function; that is, we want to come closer to having representative government than we have had it before. We believe that questions should be debated on their merits, that private members should be free to vote on legislation on its merits; and more than that, that private members should be able to introduce legislation and that this house should be free to vote on the merits of such legislation. As it is now, legislation is all cornered by the government, and only the legislation which the government approves of has any chance of getting through this house.

A very considerable number of people in the country believe what we believe. They believe that our present system of government is outworn, that it possible served its day, but that day is over, and the want such amendments in the rules and usages of parliament as will cause it more closely to resemble a representative institution . . .

Electoral reform

When we have electoral reform, when the Canadian people grasp the idea more clearly, particularly when they know that the old parties are simply systems under which class groups operate we shall see an increase in groups. The day will come when members of our group, the members of the labour group will increase, and when other groups not now named will appear and find representation in the chamber. When that happens, the new groups will be too strong for either of the old parties to command a majority and carry on the government of the country in the old way. 

Modifications will have to be made and a new method found. It does seem to me exceedingly reasonable that the House of Commons and not the Prime Minister should decide when there should be a dissolution. Why should power be put into the hands of one man to determine when there will be a dissolution of parliament and when the people of the country shall be called upon to bear the expenses of a general election.

Changing times

I know that some people have the idea that those of us who say these things are cranks. We are not. I am not saying, of course, that I am not, but I certainly say emphatically that the Canadian people are thinking new thoughts and that to them it does not seem at all reasonable that things should be as they are. Our institutions, whether educational or political, will change to meet the needs of changing times. That is only natural . . .

We represent agriculture. We are not Conservatives; we are agricultural representatives, and the sooner this house knows that, the sooner they quit wondering whether we are Tories or Liberals, the better it will be for all concerned.    


Canada. House of Commons Debates, 16th Parliament, 2nd Session, 1928,
Vol I, February 28, 1928, pp: 837-44  

More information

The Canadian Encyclopedia: Agnes, Macphail Rise of Rural Power
Historica Canada: Agnes Macphail [Video, 41 minutes]


Library and Archives Canada

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