In 1918, when women were first allowed to vote in Canadian Federal elections, Ellen Louks Fairclough (née Cook) was 13 years old. She was a typical ‘girl of the new day,' and embraced many of the new opportunities available to women. Ellen Cook's life would take an extraordinary course as she would become Canada's first female Federal Cabinet minister.

Fairclough completed her schooling at grade eight and joined the part-time work force when she was just twelve years old. For a brief time during the recession of 1921-22, which caused widespread unemployment in her hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, she was the sole breadwinner for her family. Her working class roots led her to pursue a career as a business person and she became one of the first female certified accountants in Canada.

Fairclough triumphed in the face of difficulty; she endured the discrimination she faced as a woman in the workplace, especially once she returned to the workforce after marrying Gordon Fairclough and giving birth to her son, Howard, a year later. She was actively involved in many volunteer organizations, served as a member of the Hamilton City Council, and ran a successful business in the midst of the Great Depression. 

John Diefenbaker and Ellen Fairclough in Prime Minister’s Office John Diefenbaker holding a plaque in Prime Minister’s Office

Prior to her involvement in politics, Fairclough held several executive positions in numerous organizations including the Consumers' Association of Canada, Girl Guides, Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, and Zonta International. The experience gained in these organizations helped her when she became involved in politics at the federal level. After joining the federal Conservative Party, Fairclough was elected to the House of Commons on 15 May 1950 in a by-election for Hamilton West.

Prime Minister Diefenbaker appointed Fairclough as Secretary of State in 1957.  She stood out because of her public speaking skills, determination, and energetic manner.  In 1958, she became the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.  She served as Canada's first female Acting Prime Minister from 19-20 February 1958, and she was granted the title Right Honourable by Queen Elizabeth II on 1 July 1992 for her service. In 1962, she introduced regulations that helped to reduce racial discrimination in immigration policy, allowed more immigrants into Canada, and introduced notable changes to make refugee policy more progressive.

Though her parliamentary career ended in 1963, Fairclough maintained an interest in politics and women's issues.  She actively supported "equal pay for equal work" legislation, and continued the legacy of Canadian women in government by nominating Kim Campbell for the Progressive Conservative Party leadership in 1993. Campbell went on to become Canada's first female Prime Minister.

On 16 April 1980 Fairclough was inducted as an Officer in the Order of Canada and as a Companion of the Order of Canada on 1 March 1995. She received the Order of Ontario, Ontario's highest honour, in 1996. A government office building at the juncture of McNab and King Street, in her hometown of Hamilton, was named the Ellen Fairclough Building. She died on November 13, 2004, just weeks before her 100th birthday. In 2005, Canada Post issued a stamp to commemorate her life and achievements.

John Diefenbaker with Ellen Fairclough, William Hamilton, Gordon Churchill, Michael Starr and others in Centre Block Office John Diefenbaker, Vincent Massey and the Cabinet with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip

Related Documents

House of Commons, Canada 

502 Toronto General Trusts Bldg.,
Calgary, Alberta,
August 23, 1960
Stamped: “Seen by John G. Diefenbaker”
Personal and Confidential


The Right Honourable Mr. John G. Diefenbaker,
Q.C., P.C.,
Prime Minister of Canada,
House of Commons
Ottawa, Canada.

Dear Prime Minister: -

Re: Oriental Problem

Find enclosed a copy of a letter I have written to The Honourable Ellen Fairclough which I honestly and conscientiously believe is causing much difficulty across the country.

I do not know if there is a solution, but I really believe that some simpler formula could be devised and I bring it to your attention in the same spirit as I wrote the letter to Mrs. Fairclough.

Yours very truly,

Eldon M. Woolliams



Stamped: “Office of the Prime Minister, Aug 24, 1960”

House of Commons, Canada
502 Toronto General Trusts Bldg.,
Calgary, Alberta
August 23, 1960

Personal and Confidential

The Honourable Mrs. Ellen Fairclough,
Minister of Citizenship & Immigrations,
House of Commons,
Ottawa, Canada.

Dear Mrs. Fairclough: -

Re: Oriental Problem

My sympathy has always been with you Ellen as you have a most difficult portfolio, and in consequence, with this type of responsibility goes some unpopularity.

One of the main problems is the manner in which we treat Orientals. Is there not some easier formula which could be set up, rather than dealing with wives and relatives and questioning them in reference to their credentials, which only leads to a false hope and criticism of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration at your expense?

This is mentioned to you, not as criticism on my part, but as something which no doubt all of you have had in mind and mentioned only as a matter of goodwill to all.

Yours sincerely,

Eldon Woolliams


c.c. to: The Prime Minister of Canada.

[Handwritten Note]

Jan. 12, 1960

354 x 312 C+I

Mr. P.M.

I would like to plant a seed – for thought:

A Royal Commission on Citizenship and Immigration

The Committee should meet during 1960 Session. It’s [sic] recommendation could be for a Royal Commission

If set up in, say, June or September 1960, it could not report before 1962 any legislation could only be subsequent to the next election.

Front of postcard: “Flamboyant Tree, Barbado”

Reverse: Tuck’s Postcard

Air Mail

Rt. Hon + Mrs. J.G. Diefenbaker

24 Sussex Dr.

Ottawa, Ont

Stamped:  Office of the Prime Minister, Apr 20 1963, Ottawa


It seems a long way from home but we are gradually unwinding and getting a rest. Will see you next week. 


Ellen Fairclough.

Hamilton, Ont.

April 9, 1964

Stamped: “Seen by John G. Diefenbaker”

Dear John,

We all worked like dogs down here but to no avail. I am so sorry I could not hold Hamilton West for you but I’m afraid it was a lost cause from the start. Peculiarly enough I thought we were winning but the people must have been kidding me. Even yesterday, on my rounds of the polls, I was sure I was winning.

I do want to thank you warmly for giving me the opportunity to serve in your Cabinet. It was an unforgettable experience and one I shall always cherish.

I am leaving tomorrow for a holiday in Barbados. I arranged this in January and the reservations cannot

25 Stanley Avenue, 

Hamilton, Ontario
September 9, 1963

Dear John,

No doubt you have wondered if I crawled in a hole or something and I do apologize for not having written before this.

I had intended to come down to Ottawa during the summer session but have had rather a hectic few months about which I shall tell you. The other day I met Mrs. Freeman in a Department store and when she told me Olive had been asking for me I really felt very guilty indeed.

About the first week in June I went into hospital for a check-up, the result of which was that I went back again for surgery the last week of June. I had amazing success with my recovery but, of course, it takes quite a bit out of one even under the best of circumstances.

The job of clearing out three offices and my bed-sitting room at the Chateau was a little more than I had bargained for. I have most of the stuff put away now but was amazed at what I had accumulated (it cost me $250 to have it moved to Hamilton). Gordon said “Thank goodness you didn’t have an apartment or a house,” to which I said “amen.”

I am going back into business with a group of Hamilton business and professional men in a new venture which should be quite exciting and challenging. As soon as the announcement is made

I shall let you know. My campaign manager, Mr. David Goldberg, Q.C., and I will be starting to work on the Hamilton West situation just as soon as the provincial election is over. We had intended starting September 1st but the election is claiming everyone’s attention right now. We will start a new organization, getting rid of some of the dead wood, and scouting around for a candidate because I have a feeling we may be in for an election sooner than most people think.

We will have to have three new candidates in Hamilton because, in addition to myself, I suppose you know Bob MacDonald has taken a position in Toronto and Quinto is running for the provincial.

Controller Ada Pritchard is running in Hamilton Centre which takes in a portion of my riding and a portion of Quinto’s. You may recall she is the woman I wanted Howard Green to name to the United Nations as a delegate but he wouldn’t go for it. She is a good candidate, aggressive and experienced, and should win if her workers are on their toes. She has had no experience in this kind of a campaign, however, and I am doing what I can to help her out.

We were all so sorry to hear that you had lost “Happy” who was a lovely animal. I am sure you must miss him sorely but hope you will replace him.

It must have been quite a chore moving to 541 and I have heard some intriguing tales about the situation there but will have to wait until I see you to get the story straight.

If all goes well, and my business will allow it, I shall try and come down during the forthcoming session and will hope to have a chat with all of my old friends.

I don’t know whether you heard about Howard or not but he and Jeannine are being married this coming Friday (the 13th!). You will be receiving an announcement in due course but I thought you and Olive would be interested since you met her on a couple of occasions although you may not remember.

So you can see that, with moving, surgery, son’s marriage, and my new business I have been far from idle.

As the Nova Scotians say, “God willing and weather permitting” I shall see you some time this autumn.

Warm regards to both of you.



Stamp: Seen by John G. Diefenbaker

Canada, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration

Ottawa, April 12th, 1962
Rt. Hon. John G. Diefenbaker, M.P.,
Prime Minister of Canada,

My dear Prime Minister,

As I was leaving the hotel this morning, Mr. Eloi Belanger asked me if I would deliver the enclosed note to you personally.

Just to refresh your memory this is the elevator starter with the raspy voice who has been there for so many years. He asked me if I would mind delivering this to “my friend, the Prime Minister.”

Yours sincerely,

Ellen Fairclough

Ellen L. Fairclough


Royal Commissions

(November 15th, 1948 to June 21st, 1957)

The following is a list of Royal Commissions appointed by the Administration of the Right Honourable Louis S. St. Laurent (November 15th, 1948 to June 21st, 1957):

Royal Commission Date of Establishment
1. Cases where revocation of citizenship is under consideration 17th December 1948
2. Transportation 29th December 1948
3. National development in the arts, letters and sciences 8th April 1949
4. Floods in Red River Valley, Manitoba 17th May 1950
5. Fire damage to towns of Rimouski and Cabano, P.Q. 17th May 1950
6. Rents payable on leased lands in townsites and subdivisions in Banff and Jasper National Parks and minimum value of buildings which may be erected therein 15th September 1950
7. Claims arising out of World War II (Mr. Chief Justice Ilsley) 31st July 1951
8. South Saskatchewan River Project 24th August 1951
9. Staking of areas and application for permits re exploring petroleum products by Sun Oil Co. and California Standard Co. 12th November 1951
10. Claims arising out of World War II (Mr. Chief Justice Campbell) 23rd October 1952
11. Criminal law relating to defence of insanity 2nd March 1954
12. Criminal sexual psychopaths 25th March 1954
13. Quartz mining and placer mining in Yukon Territory 29th April 1954
14. Agreed charges under Part IV of the Transport Act 20th May 1954
15. Patents, Copyright, Trade Marks 10th June 1954
16. Humber River Valley flood 20th October 1954
17. Coasting trade in Canada 1st March 1955
18. Long-term prospects of the Canadian economy            17th June 1955
19. Broadcasting in Canada 2nd December 1955
20. Dispute between Canadian Pacific Railway and Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers 17th January 1957
21. Financial position of Newfoundland 21st February 1957

Royal Commissions Appointed

April 1, 1953 – June 21, 1957

(excluding commissions appointed to inquire into charges of political partisanship, covering a period of 51 months)


Date of establishment

1. Criminal law relating to defence of insanity 2 March 1954
2. Criminal sexual psychopaths 25 March 1954
3. Quartz mining and placer mining in Yukon Territory 29 April 1954
4. Agreed charges under Part IV of the Transport Act 20 May 1954
5. Patents, Copyright, Trade Marks 10 June 1954
6. Humber River Valley flood 20 October 1954
7. Coasting trade in Canada 1 March 1955
8. Long-term prospects of the Canadian economy 17 June 1955
9. Broadcasting in Canada 2 December 1955
10. Dispute between Canadian Pacific Railway and Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers 17 January 1957
11. Financial position of Newfoundland 21 February 1957

Royal Commissions Appointed

June 21, 1957 – October 19, 1961

(excluding commissions appointed to inquire into charges political partisanship; covering a period of 51 months)

  Date of establishment
1. Energy policy 15 October 1957
2. Price spreads in food products 10 December 1957
3. Seabird Island Indians 18 February 1958
4. Railway problems 13 May 1959
5. Route of railway line, Northern Alberta 4 June 1959
6. Treaties 8 and 11 as applied to the Indians of the MacKenzie District 25 June 1959
7. Coal 6 October 1959
8. Motor vehicles industries 2 August 1960
9. Station CHEK-TV, Victoria, B.C. 6 September 1960
10. Government organization 16 September 1960
11. Canadian magazines and other periodicals 16 September 1960
12. Health services 20 June 1961
13. Unemployment Insurance Act 17 July, 1961
14. Banking and finance 18 October, 1961



One of the most serious problems that was faced by the Government during the election was the question of immigration. Mrs. Fairclough had done well in her position but ethnic peoples do not feel that a woman should have a responsible position and never fully accepted her. I so advised her, and pointed out that we had lost two constituencies and possibly three because of the action taken against the Chinese.

As far back as November 1961 following a meeting in Winnipeg with representatives of the Chinese of that city, I directed that prosecutions that were under way should be proceeded with but there was no hope of making much of an advance, and there should be an immediate acceleration of the granting of entry certificates of such Chinese who had entered Canada illegally but had co-operated with the authorities by admitting their wrongdoing.

I directed, too, that the Hong Kong police should no longer be employed by the R.C.M.P.

Following this direction Mrs. Fairclough had tried to bring about an early issue of these certificates but Mr. Fulton continued to use the Hong Kong police, whose conduct was reprehensible and tyrannical.

Although I was given to understand that there were no further prosecutions during the election, two well-known Chinese in Edmonton were arrested.

The two constituencies that were definitely lost as a result of these prosecutions and action taken were Toronto-St. Paul’s and Vancouver Centre (Michener and Jung).

After some discussion, all in good spirits, she agreed to transfer.

I said if we had had a majority she might have gone to the Senate where she would be able to make a worthwhile contribution, and she said that would be a happy conclusion to one’s political career.