Early Life and Education
Judy LaMarsh was born 20 December 1924 in Chatham, Ontario. During the Great Depression, her family moved to Niagara Falls, Ontario, for better employment opportunities for her father, who was a lawyer. LaMarsh’s high school years coincided with the march toward the Second World War. After finishing high school, she attempted to join the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division, but she was denied due to poor eyesight. Instead, she completed a primary-school teaching course at Hamilton’s Normal School.
In 1943, LaMarsh joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. She studied drafting in Toronto before being posted to Halifax, where she worked with the Royal Canadian Engineers. LaMarsh was transferred to Vancouver, where she studied Japanese, and then went to the United States as part of an Allied intelligence operation that translated Japanese documents found by Allied soldiers in the Pacific theatre. She reached the rank of sergeant before being demobilized after the war ended.
LaMarsh enrolled in Victoria College at the University of Toronto and completed a bachelor of arts degree in 1947. She then studied law at Osgoode Hall at York University and was called to the bar in 1950, joining her father’s law practice in Niagara Falls.
Early Political Career
LaMarsh came by her passion for politics naturally. Her father was a dedicated member of the Liberal Party who campaigned for party candidates in the Niagara Falls riding. While at the University of Toronto, LaMarsh joined the Young Liberals club. She took on a number of roles in the organization at the provincial and federal levels, including president of the Ontario Women’s Liberal Association.
Confident in her political abilities, LaMarsh put herself forward for provincial candidacy in the fall of 1959 but was unsuccessful. In the summer of 1960, LaMarsh began campaigning for the federal Liberal nomination in the upcoming Niagara Falls by-election. Although she was told numerous times that being a woman would cost her the election, LaMarsh was undeterred. Her usual reply was “Let’s not worry about whether the man in the street will vote for a woman, will you vote for me?” She won the nomination and was elected to Parliament in October 1960.
During the 1962 federal election campaign, LaMarsh played a prominent role in the Truth Squad, a group of Liberals that followed Conservative leader John Diefenbaker for several days on the trail, exposing any misstatements made by the prime minister. In response, Diefenbaker accused the Liberals of smear tactics and the plan backfired. LaMarsh was castigated in the press. The Progressive Conservatives won a minority government in the 1962 election but were unseated by the Liberals the following year.
Minister of National Health and Welfare (1963–65)
In April 1963, newly elected prime minister Lester B. Pearson named LaMarsh as the Minister of National Health and Welfare and Minister of Amateur Sport, making her the second female in Canada to serve in the federal Cabinet. LaMarsh was instrumental in guiding many bills into laws and had a personal hand in drafting the Canada Pension Plan, which received Royal Assent in 1965. She also played an important role in formulating Medicare, the long-debated national universal medical insurance program, although it would not be implemented until 1968 under her successor, Allan J. MacEachen.
Secretary of State (1965–68)
In December 1965, Pearson appointed LaMarsh to be Canada’s Secretary of State, with a portfolio that included the Centennial celebrations in 1967. She travelled thousands of kilometres that year, participating in local festivities and welcoming international dignitaries.
LaMarsh was also instrumental in bringing about the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, a watershed for Canadian women’s rights. In 1963 and 1965, LaMarsh asked Pearson to initiate a public inquiry into the place of women in Canadian society, but she was turned down due to negative press reaction. However, she persisted with the support of numerous women’s organizations and, in February 1967, Pearson announced the commission’s establishment.
As Canada’s Secretary of State, LaMarsh also oversaw the 1966 White Paper on Broadcasting, a groundbreaking examination of the country’s broadcasting sector that became the basis for the Broadcasting Act of 1968. The Broadcasting Act established a mandate for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and set up the Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC).
Retirement from Politics
In April 1968, LaMarsh announced that she was leaving politics. Her retirement coincided with Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s ascendancy to the Liberal Party’s leadership. Political rumours suggested that LaMarsh’s disdain for Trudeau’s brand of politics pushed her out of the party. However, while LaMarsh wasn’t impressed with the Trudeaumania that had swept the Liberal Party and the nation and had opposed his leadership bid, she was adamant that Trudeau wasn’t the reason for her departure. Instead, she cited the glacial pace of government business, disappointment in the political establishment’s inertia and nearly a decade of lost privacy as the main contributors for her decision to step away.
LaMarsh’s nearly 10 years in federal politics had been tumultuous. As the only woman in Pearson’s Cabinet, she fought against the “men’s club” that dominated Canadian politics. She described the political establishment as designed specifically for men and wholly unprepared for women on even the most basic of levels—for example, there was no washroom for her as Cabinet minister because the appointment of a woman to Cabinet was so rare. She recalled being asked by journalists about home decor and cooking: “My tastes…all became public property to a degree suffered by none of my colleagues, including the prime minister.”
LaMarsh was known for her willingness to speak her mind at a time when women were just beginning to make headway in the fight for equal treatment. One of her former aides remembered her as “very democratic” in her interactions, treating “the office boy and the deputy minister exactly alike — she constantly gave them hell.” LaMarsh’s blunt honesty and biting comments drew criticism from the press and political insiders. She was a favourite target of political cartoonists, who cruelly exaggerated her figure, eyeglasses and bouffant hair as a way to magnify her brashness.
After retiring from politics, LaMarsh spent the next year in Niagara Falls, writing about her experiences on Parliament Hill. Memoirs of a Bird in a Gilded Cage was published in 1969 to fanfare and controversy. The title reflected LaMarsh’s belief that, as a woman, she was an oddity on Canada’s political scene. There was extensive publicity and cutting criticism of her memoir. It was criticized for revealing the behind-the-scenes machinations of the highest political offices. The critiques were often gendered, with assertions that LaMarsh was trading in gossip and rumours. In a 1969 CBC interview with Adrienne Clarkson, LaMarsh noted that she wrote the book, in part, so that women would know what politics was like. Ten years later, she published her first novel, A Very Political Lady, a political thriller with characters based on her experience in public office. Just like her memoir, A Very Political Lady inspired criticism about LaMarsh’s outspokenness and lack of discretion. A Right Honourable Lady, the similarly themed sequel, followedin 1980.
Broadcasting and Media
LaMarsh spent most of her post-politics career in broadcasting. In 1968, she had a three-month stint on a panel for a Niagara Falls radio program. Following her book tour, she returned to Ottawa to host The LaMarsh Show, a local TV program in which she offered advice to people with political and legal grievances. The show was a hit in the capital region, but the commute from Niagara Falls to Ottawa was wearisome and The LaMarsh Show ended after one season. In the early 1970s, she moved to British Columbia to host a current affairs call-in radio program. From 1975 to 1976, she took over the hosting duties of CBC Radio’s flagship daily program, This Country in the Morning. Broadcasting out of Toronto, the three-hour current affairs program was retitled Judy. During this same time, LaMarsh also hosted On the Line, a weekly topical program on TVOntario (now TVO), the province’s educational network.
Ontario premier William (Bill) Davis, a Progressive Conservative, named LaMarsh chair of the province’s Royal Commission on Violence in the Communications Industry in 1975. The year-long commission, which held 61 public hearings, focused on depictions of violence in the media and its effects on audiences and investigated possible industry regulations.
LaMarsh also practised law following her retirement from politics. She established a practice in St. Catharines, Ontario, in May 1969 and taught law at Osgoode Hall in the early 1970s. In 1974, LaMarsh defended the “Brunswick Four” for free. The group of young lesbians had been harassed by police and arrested for causing a disturbance at a Toronto tavern. The case is considered a groundbreaking event in Toronto’s gay liberation movement.
In July 1980, LaMarsh was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. She died of cancer four months later on 27 October 1980. Ontario premier Bill Davis remembered LaMarsh for her “absolute devotion and loyalty to the causes in which she believed.” Even LaMarsh’s critics recognized her public service, praising her forceful energy and fortitude. “Judy LaMarsh endowed each of her many careers with energy, intellect and commitment,” remarked Canadian journalist Peter C. Newman. “But, to the end, she never gave up her essential gutsy humanity.”
In recognition of LaMarsh’s efforts with the Royal Commission on Violence in the Communications Industry, York University established the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution in 1980. It was the first research institution of its kind in Ontario. The LaMarsh Centre now focuses on child and youth research, particularly at-risk youth.
LaMarsh’s contributions have also been honoured at the University of Toronto. Victoria College offers the Judy LaMarsh Lecture for Women in Leadership, while the faculty of law awards the Judy LaMarsh Prize in Feminist Analysis of Law to upper-year students who have achieved excellence in feminist legal analysis.
In 1984, the Liberal Party of Canada established the Judy LaMarsh Fund, which provides funding to female federal Liberal candidates.