Everything has a beginning: roots that begin to grow from little seedlings of curiosity, or information or invitation. The story of the Agnes Macphail Project is no exception. Although I'd always had an interest in the life and work of Agnes, I had read it from a distance, almost objectively. As I trace this particular project back to its humble beginnings, I can clearly see that it began in a church pew.
On one of my rare Sundays out of the pulpit, I attended Conn United Church. The Rev. Doyle Prier was presiding. During the children's time, he playfully and intentionally talked about how people are gifted for particular tasks in life. The children immediately connected to this story as perhaps each one listened for ways they might become another Wayne Gretzky or Celine Dion. Rev. Doyle assured them that children have God-given gifts to share in their community, at school, church and at home - and sometimes they begin to open these gifts at a very young age. He told them how Agnes Macphail had a dream of teaching and leading at a very young age. He told them where she was born so the children could identify a local property. That was it - not objective, but subjective. Now the children could drive by and see that field and if they heard that story often enough, they could even see the log house in their mind's eye.
I left church that morning with a mission and the words that kept coming to me were, "There has to be more. What's the rest of the story?" I knew the general location of Agnes's birthplace, but even that was too vague. This was a woman who had changed the course of time and she deserved a place in everybody's mind and memory. But how could this be done?
March 2005: Around mid March, I was in the Mount Forest library and a group of children gathered with their teacher. I talked with them and asked them what they were doing. They told me they were working on a project of some of Canada's famous people. I asked them if they had John Diefenbacker on their list. Yes! And what about Emily Carr? Yes! And maybe Donna Mann? They laughed as I knew a few of them from the Children's Time group at Mount Forest United Church. When I asked them if they had Agnes Macphail on their list, a child asked "Who's she?" Children work many projects at school and have many lists from which to work, I'm sure they would get to Agnes over the course of their public school lessons, but the question, "Who is she?" remained a gift, ready to open,
June, 2005: I opened an email from a friend. Helen's words were short and to the point. "Don't forget to vote for Agnes," with a link to the article about choosing Ontario's Greatest Women. The competition was steep and all the women noted were qualified to gain the vote of the greatest. When I considered this further, I knew it had to be Agnes's Day. On July 1st, 2005, it was announced. Agnes had won.
"Let's make the world a better place" (Agnes Macphail)
As I reflect back, I could see many situations that hinted at work needed to bring Agnes Macphail's work to the forefront. But those three incidents, within a six month time frame, kept playing in my mind like a video stuck on rewind.
I contacted the teacher of the Grade 5 group and asked if she was interested in working with me on some level of heightening the awareness of Agnes's profile in the classroom. She was excited about this and together we planned how we might do it. One of the ways was for her to edit what I would write about Agnes's childhood, and she would use it in the classroom so the children could identify with Agnes's rural life and childhood experiences. This project developed into a classroom challenge of discussion and essay writing, which were two of Agnes's favourite activities. Thanks, Donna.
2005: Although this was a good beginning, it was not enough. How does one reach a larger circle of influence? After finding out the place where Agnes was born, I mean the exact lot in a field which was now grown up with willows and brush, I wrote an article in the Dundalk/Flesherton paper asking people to contact me if they were interested in this project, Granted, it was July and farmers are busy on the land, people are traveling and in general, busy. Some people called and emailed and generally thought it was a good idea. Following that, I put another blurb in the newspaper bringing the public up to date with potential plans for the project. This caught the attention of Jean Clunas, closest living relative of Agnes Macphail and she joined in as much as possible.
By this time, I was convinced that this project, whatever shape it took, was a good way to "make this a proud part of Grey County".
Thanks to Jean Clunas of Harriston, Ontario
(Closest living relative of Agnes)
Donna Mann extends a very special thank you to Jean Clunas (family contact) for her consistent willingness to share information, critique written work, as well as to make suggestions. I kept her informed of the different events and she was present at various functions as transportation, weather and health permitted. We have had many phone calls, visits and even a road trip to Macphail country with lunch in Markdale during which time, she explained, defined and interpreted sites and historical events to our small party of researchers. So thank you Jean – you have been a bright light in Agnes's story and an essential part of this whole project. (Jean is daughter of Lillian McPhail Bailey, youngest sister of Agnes Macphail) Yes the spelling is correct.
THE HUMBLE BEGINNINGS OF THE AGNES MACPHAIL PROJECT
FIRST WOMAN ELECTED TO CANADIAN PARLIMENT
AGNES MACPHAIL (1890 - 1955)
The following are some of the events that took place during this time:
•2005: A visit to Southgate Township office provided me with maps and information about the McPhail property •A phone call to Southgate Township 'to speak at a council meeting to gain permission for road signing in memory of Agnes Macphail. Directed to Grey County as a preceived entrance to the property was a county road. •A contact with Grey County Transportation and Roads Chairperson •Correspondence with both Southgate Township and
* Meetings with Grey Sign Committee and Designer
•Attendance at Southgate council meetings •Attendance at Grey County Council meeting •Letters, emails, phone calls requesting permission, asking information and learning procedure. •Newspaper articles inviting people to join in the
project and informing them of progress.
•December, 2005: Notification that road signs were erected on Highway #4 to mark the Macphail Ceylon residence and the last farm where the family lived, when Agnes and her sisters attended Old Durham Road Public School.
Weather is bad - cold and stormy (so what else is new around activities involving Agnes)
We begin to pass the word that we want to acknowledge these signs. Some people phone, willing to risk the elements and stand at the side of a busy highway to remember Agnes. Regrets were received due to short notice and bad weather. Lunch followed in Flesherton. At that time, I shared a plan of forming a committee of interested people to plan a celebration to commemorate an event to celebrate the 85th anniversary of Agnes Macphail's election to Canadian Parliament.
A planning meeting was held in Swinton Park Community Hall. Various tasks were named. An extension mailing list was begun and added to over the months of planning.
•A visit to the farmer who now owned the old McPhail property informing him of future plans for a cairn and the forthcoming celebration and asking for his support. •Letter (March 20, 2006) to Southgate Township inviting participation in the Celebration Event planned for June, 2006. •Newspaper article inviting people to join in the project •Many meetings as the committee members planned, searched history and created mailing lists. •June, 2006: The Celebration of Agnes McPhail and her contribution to Canada.
See program for various activities and speeches
•Aggie's Storms, published September, 2006 with book launch at Grey Roots, Owen Sound. •Back to the drawing board for a request for recognition signs on Grey County Road #9. "The Agnes Macphail Road". •In December 12th the signs were erected. Again the word was passed that the signs should be acknowledged before winter set in. Immediately between a snow storm and in frigid weather, a small group met at the site for pictures and remarks. In the busyness of a Monday morning, only a few were able to gather for a brief lunch. Donna Mann read the HoldFast prayer and Don Lewis, Southgate Mayor remarked that many of the issues for which Agnes fought, still remain. It was agreed for that reason; we need to hold fast to the values of justice, equality and peace that she held so dear.
More words of gratitude:
We are grateful for the encouragement and support received from various McPhail family members, Don Lewis, Mayor of Southgate Township, Gary Shaw of Grey County Roads and Transporation Department, Grey County Historical Society, various Women's Institutes, South-East Grey Museum (Flesherton), local libraries, Holdfast Club, friends and acquantances of Agnes, those who knew her and of her. Also to members of both Provincial and Federal governments for personal and corporate support in making the project a success. And thank you to Larry Miller for announcing the celebration in the House of Commons and speaking the name of Agnes Macphail before the members of Parliament on this occasion.
And even more: I would especially like to thank the members of the Press and the local newspapers who so graciously printed articles, announcements, events and pictures keeping the public informed in those early days of planning the June 24th, 2006 event. Correspondents such as Eric Lunstead (Dundalk Herald), Don Cosby (Sun Times, Owen Sound), Mount Forest Confederate, Minto Express, The Rural Voice and others.
To the Project Cmmittee who worked so dilegently - much was accomplished because of your efforts. Thanks, Donna Mann