This Week in History


British Columbia’s First Female Judge

For the week of Monday January 7, 2008

On January 7, 1864, Helen Gregory MacGill was born in Hamilton, Ontario. MacGill was a pioneer in the Canadian women’s movement in the late 19th and early 20th century where she fought for the rights of women and children.

MacGill attended Trinity College in Toronto and became the school’s first woman graduate. After college she began a career in journalism, which led to an interest in social and political reform. She moved to Vancouver in 1903 where she would spend the remainder of her life.

Helen Gregory MacGill
© University of British Columbia Archives {UBC 1.1/9729)
MacGill was one of the original members of a club for college women, the Women’s University Club of British Columbia. She became the Chair of the Club’s Committee for Better Laws for Women and Children in British Columbia, where the focus was on legislation regarding women and children.

At this time in British Columbia, fathers had sole guardianship of children and a husband could will away all his property and leave his wife with nothing. It was also legal for 12-year-old girls and 14-year-old boys to marry. The Laws Committee actively campaigned for amendments to these such acts, which were considered unfair to women and children.

Helen Gregory MacGill at her typewriter
© City of Vancouver Archives / CVA 371-119
MacGill was the first woman to receive an honourary law degree from the University of British Columbia and, at the age of 53, MacGill became the first female judge in British Columbia and only the third female judge in Canada. She served on the bench from 1917 to 1928 and from 1934 to 1945. As a judge she continued to focus her attention on the rights of women and children. Her primary concern as a juvenile court judge was keeping children out of jail and avoiding repeat court appearances. She placed children on probation as often as possible, only sending them to industrial schools when all else failed. She often called the family of the offender into the courtroom in hopes of righting the family situation so that the child received proper guidance. Through her work in the juvenile courts she laid the groundwork for the modern-day family court.

Counted among MacGill’s successes were the Equal Guardianship Act in 1917 which gave mothers and fathers equal rights in regard to their children, the Minimum Wage for Women Bill and amendments to inheritance laws, giving more rights to widows.

For her contribution to the suffrage campaign, legal reform and juvenile law, Helen Gregory MacGill has been designated a National Historic Person.

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