Born in the farming village of Frankville, Ontario, Louise McKinney was the sixth of 10 children born to a strict Methodist family. A good student, McKinney dreamed of being a doctor, but circumstances did not permit. Instead, she attended Ottawa Normal School and trained to be a teacher. After seven years of teaching in Ontario schools, McKinney moved to North Dakota to live with her sister. McKinney found another teaching job in North Dakota and began to attend temperance meetings. She also became an organizer for the WCTU. About this time, she met James McKinney, a fellow Ontarian and temperance activist, whom she soon married.
Woman’s Christian Temperance Union
The WCTU’s main objective was to protect the home from “evil” influences and strengthen family life. Prohibition of alcohol and gaining the women’s right to vote were two of the WCTU’s ambitious targets (see Women’s Suffrage in Canada). In 1903, Louise and James McKinney moved back to Canada to a homestead near Claresholm, North-West Territories, an area that later became part of Alberta. As devout Christians, the pair wasted no time in building the village’s first church. McKinney also founded the local chapter of the WCTU. She then went on to establish branches of the WCTU across Alberta and Saskatchewan — and participated in opening more than 40 chapters in less than a decade.
McKinney not only organized WCTU events, but was a popular public speaker who regularly took to the podium to discuss the evils of alcohol. She was also certain that one way to protect the family and make the world a better place was to give women the federal franchise.
Moving through the WCTU ranks, McKinney rose from member and chapter founder to president of the Alberta WCTU. She later went on to serve as vice-president of the Dominion WCTU, from 1908 to 1930. As well, she took on the role of superintendent of one division of the WCTU, the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction. Her mandate was to promote temperance education in schools. Addressing teachers, departments of education and the premiers of Saskatchewan and Alberta, McKinney and her colleagues attempted to organize school courses on the dangers of tobacco and alcohol (see Alcoholism). The goal was only partially reached, but McKinney’s efforts brought her into the political sphere.
McKinney travelled extensively as vice-president of the Dominion WCTU (1908–30), speaking before crowds in Canada, the United States, Europe and England. In 1916, Alberta became the third province to prohibit the sale of alcohol, due in large part to McKinney and her peers’ fierce campaigning. (In 1923, a provincial referendum ended prohibition in Alberta.)
In 1888, the Dominion WCTU endorsed women’s suffrage in Canada. Obtaining the right to vote would provide the means to shape society and its laws according to their vision. This included the enactment of prohibition. McKinney campaigned for the franchise alongside her peers in the WCTU. On 13 October 1911, at a WCTU convention in Calgary, McKinney said, “Women’s franchise means home protection. In this age it is no longer possible for women to protect their homes from within. They must go outside and the best way for her to accomplish this protection is by ballot.”
On 19 April 1916, most women in Alberta won the right to vote and to hold provincial office (First Nations women did not obtain this provincial right until 1965).
First Woman Elected to a Canadian Legislature
Elections for the Alberta Legislature were held in 1917, and McKinney’s name was on the ballot. She accepted nomination as the Non-Partisan League candidate, because the other major parties received backing from the liquor industry (see Political Party Financing). Holding to her convictions, McKinney won her seat on a prohibition platform.
McKinney is recognized as the first women to be elected to a Canadian legislature, when she won a seat on the Legislative Assembly of Alberta on 7 June 1917. She was also the first woman to be elected to a legislature in the British Empire (see Commonwealth). Another woman, Roberta MacAdams, a military nurse, was also elected in August 1917 as one of two Soldiers’ Representatives in the Alberta legislature. Both McKinney and MacAdams were sworn in on 7 February 1918.
As a Member of the Legislative Assembly, McKinney broadened her agenda to include social welfare for immigrants and widows. Along with Henrietta Edwards, she helped bring about the Dower Act, initiated by Magistrate Emily Murphy, vital legislation that protected a married woman’s property rights (see Dower).
McKinney ran for office again in 1921, as a member of the United Farmers of Alberta, but lost. She did not run for office again.
United Church Lay Preacher
McKinney was deeply involved with her church, where she served as an accredited lay preacher, superintendent of Sunday school and a leader in the Woman’s Missionary Society. Reverend George Webber, president of the Lord’s Day Alliance of Canada, said of McKinney: “In the pulpit her deep spiritual insight, her keen intellect, and her inspiring fervour combined to make her preaching ever welcome and fruitful.”
Women’s rights were always at the forefront of McKinney’s actions. A popular lay preacher herself, McKinney made the case for women to become ministers in the Methodist church and later in the United Church — but her proposals did not meet with approval.
In 1925, the Methodist Church, Presbyterian, Congregational and the General Council of the Local Union Churches were amalgamated into the United Church of Canada. McKinney was one of four women — among 346 men — who signed the religious union document.
The Famous Five and the Persons Case
In August 1927, Emily Murphy invited Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby and Louise McKinney to her Edmonton home. Murphy had carefully drafted a petition to put before the Supreme Court of Canada, regarding the interpretation of the word persons in the British North America Act (Constitution Act, 1867). At the time, women were not included in the definition of persons under the Constitution. Murphy and her fellow activists signed the petition, which asked the Supreme Court whether the word persons in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, included women. If it considered women to be persons, the Constitution would allow for a woman to be appointed to the Senate.
Handing down the judgment on 24 April 1928, the Supreme Court denied the petition. However, the fight was not over. First called the “Alberta Five” and later “The Famous Five,” the women took their request to the highest court, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England.
On 18 October 1929, Lord Chancellor John Sankey read out the names of the five Alberta appellants. He then thoroughly explained his legal argument in what became known as the Persons Case. Sankey summed up his decision: women are persons under the law. As a result, women were eligible for Senate appointments.
Receiving recognition as a member of the Famous Five, McKinney was appointed vice-president of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, an imperialist women’s group. After the revolutionary decision of the Persons Case, she remained fully occupied with WCTU business. In 1931, McKinney was elected president of the Dominion WCTU. In June 1931, she was named first vice-president of the World’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union at its international convention in Toronto in June 1931, which she hosted. About 1,500 delegates from across the globe were in attendance.
Members of the Famous Five are often criticized as having been racist and elitist; their reputation and accomplishments are often seen as tarnished by their associations with the eugenics movement. Though her personal views on compulsory eugenic sterilization are not known, McKinney did support the eugenics movement in Alberta in other ways. She promoted stricter immigration laws — a means to keep out unwanted, often racialized, individuals — and lobbied for the creation of institutions for “mental defectives” — seen as a means to prevent institutionalized persons from reproducing.
Sexual sterilization laws were passed in Alberta (1928–72) and British Columbia (1933–73), during which time thousands of people deemed “psychotic” or “mentally defective” underwent eugenic sterilization.
A dynamic trailblazer, McKinney made an enduring mark in women’s rights and social welfare. In 1939, she was named a Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada. In October 2009, 80 years after the Persons Case, the Senate voted to recognize the Famous Five as honorary senators. It was the first time the Senate had bestowed such a distinction.