Florence Bird

Florence Bayard Bird (née Rhein, pseudonym Anne Francis), CC, senator, journalist, broadcaster and author (born 15 January 1908 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died 18 July 1998 in Ottawa, Ontario). Chair of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada from 1967 to 1970, Florence Bird made her name as a broadcast journalist for CBC/Radio-Canada, reporting news and producing documentaries on women’s working conditions and on conditions for women in Canada’s prisons.

Florence Bayard Bird, commissioner for Council on the Status of Women, Ottawa
Florence Bird
In 1967, Bird was appointed Chair of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, the role for which she is best remembered.

Education and Early Career

Born into a well-to-do American family, Florence Rhein earned her bachelor’s degree at Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia, and then married the journalist John Bird. In 1931, the young couple settled in Montréal, where Florence began writing stories and book reviews for Canadian Forum, a political magazine. She also tried her hand at writing novels, but her manuscripts were rejected by the various publishers to which she submitted them. In 1937, the Birds moved to Winnipeg, where both of them worked for the Winnipeg Tribune John as editor-in-chief and Florence as a volunteer. It was at this time that she adopted the pen name Anne Francis by which she became known to the public.

Florence Bird’s career as a journalist really began during the Second World War, when she wrote Holding the Home Front, a column on Canadian women’s contributions to the war effort, for the Winnipeg Tribune. In 1941, she hosted Behind the Headlines, a program broadcast on a provincially owned radio station. In 1942, she began working as a news commentator for the CBC’s English network. She remained with the CBC until 1966, producing documentaries on women’s rights, pay inequities between men and women, reconciling work and family life, conditions in Canadian women’s prisons (see Prison), and international affairs.

Commissioner and Senator

In February 1967, Prime MinisterLester B. Pearson appointed Bird to chair the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. She was joined on the commission by two men and four women: Jacques Henripin, an eminent professor of demography at the Université de Montréal; John Humphrey, the McGill University law professor who had drafted the United NationsUniversal Declaration of Human Rights; Lola Lange, a farmer and community activist from Claresholm, Alberta who did advocacy work for Indigenous women; Jeanne Lapointe, a literature professor at Université Laval who had a member of the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Education in the Province of Québec; Elsie Gregory MacGill, an aeronautical engineer from Toronto, Ontario; and Doris Ogilvie, a juvenile court judge from Fredericton, New Brunswick. The commission’s executive secretary was Monique Bégin, a young sociologist who had worked closely on women’s issues with Thérèse Casgrain and who would go on to become the first woman from Québec to be elected to the House of Commons.

Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
 Elsie Gregory MacGill
She was the first woman to receive an electrical engineering degree in Canada (1927), the first woman in the world to hold a degree in aeronautical engineering (1929) and the world first female aircraft designer. Elsie MacGill was also active in women's rights issues and in 1967 was appointed to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Her mother, Helen Gregory MacGill was the first female judge in British Columbia.
Elizabeth (Elsie) MacGill
Aeronautical engineer and feminist Elizabeth MacGill.

The Commission received 468 briefs and some 1,000 letters and heard from nearly 900 people in the course of its public hearings. On 7 December 1970, it presented its report, which made 167 recommendations for eliminating gender inequality in Canada. Once this report was issued, numerous women’s groups, including the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, were formed to work for the implementation of its recommendations

Florence Bird was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1971. She published Anne Francis: An Autobiography in 1974 and Holiday in the Woods in 1976. In 1978, Pierre Elliott Trudeau appointed her to the Senate of Canada, where she served on the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution of Canada and the Special Senate Committee on Retirement Age Policies.

Bird continued to serve in the Senate until her 75th birthday, on 15 January 1983. That same year, she was appointed to the federal government’s Advisory Council on the Status of Refugees (see Refugees), on which she served for two years, and she received a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case. In the years that followed, she was a regular member of a discussion panel on the CBC Radio program Morningside.

Commemoration of Her Legacy

Every year since 1987, the Pauline Jewett Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies at Carleton University has presented the Florence Bird Lecture.

In 1996, the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, in Montréal, established the Florence Bird Award to honour women working in communications who increase public awareness of women's rights.

In 1999, Status of Women Canada opened the Florence Bird Memorial Library in Ottawa. This library houses one of Canada's most complete collections of resource materials on women and gender equality, including over 20,000 monographs and other publications on women’s issues, as well as government documents, international publications, and independently produced reports and surveys.


Further Reading

  • Gail Cuthbert Brandt, Naomi Black, Paula Bourne and Magda Fahrni, Canadian Women: A History (2011).

  • Judi Cumming, “Florence Bird,” in Sharon Anne Cook, Lorna R. McLean and Kate O’Rourke, eds., Framing Our Past: Constructing Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century (2001), pp. 257‒58.

  • Florence Bird, Reminiscences of the Commission chair,” in Caroline Andrew and Sanda Rodgers, eds., Women and the Canadian state / Les femmes et l'état canadien (1997), pp. 185‒96.

  • Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (1970).