In Loving Memory - Margaret Birch
Ontario Association of Former Parliamentarians
In Loving Memory of
Margaret Birch (June 13, 1921 — October 29, 2020)
Progressive Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament for Scarborough East
In the 29th, 30th, 31st , and 32nd Parliaments
(October 21, 1971 – May 1, 1985)
On September 28, 1972, Margaret Birch became the first woman in Ontario to be appointed to the Cabinet. Margaret Birch served as Parliamentary Assistant to the Premier, Provincial Secretary for Social Development with direct authority over the ministries of Health, Education, Social Services, Women's Secretariat and Youth Secretariat, and Minister Without Portfolio. She also served on the Select Committee on Utilization of Educational Facilities and the Standing Committee on Social Development.
- 1963 to 1971 Chair of the Scarborough Board of Health
- 1967 to 1970 Vice-Chair of the Scarborough Social Planning Council
- 1967 to 1971 Board Member of the Scarborough Mental Health Council
- One of the founding members of the Scarborough Centenary Hospital
- Board of Governors - Scarborough Centenary Hospital
Tributes by former colleagues
"I don't think the person existed who didn't like Margaret Birch. She was a very engaged, hard-working citizen who served her community and her province with dedication and very good effect. When I first arrived at Queen's Park in September 1975, Margaret had been in the cabinet for about three years, first as minister responsible for youth and then as Provincial Secretary for Social Development, a job she held till she left the Davis cabinet in 1983 to head up Ontario's Bicentennial Commission. Always prepared, unfailingly polite, Margaret was very loyal to Bill Davis and it was my impression that her loyalty and support for the premier enhanced her power and status within the government. In the often raucous proceedings of the Ontario Legislature, Margaret was always ' the adult in the room ' and she had a wonderful ability to convey, without words, the need for order and decorum. The last time I saw Margaret was in 2016 at the launch of Steve Paikin's book about ' the life and political times ' of William Grenville Davis. There, in the middle of a room packed with hundreds of people, standing as straight as a young military cadet, stood the 95-year-old Margaret Birch taking in every word that Mr. Davis offered that evening. When, in the middle of Mr. Davis's speech, I went over to Margaret to see if she'd like a chair on which to sit, she smiled and said quietly, " No thank you, you know standing is good for a person "! Those words and the image of that scene remain with me to this day. " -Sean Conway
“Quiet determination is what carried Margaret Birch from a challenging life at age 12 to the Cabinet table and getting her inside the once male only Albany Club to join her Cabinet colleagues for the special occasion of meeting Robert Stanfield, Leader of the Federal Conservatives. After touring mental health institutions around the province, Margaret's quiet determination would provide the leadership to exact needed changes.
In 2016, our Ontario Association of Former Parliamentarians presented Margaret Birch with the Distinguished Service Award. The official scroll read, in part, “As Provincial Secretary for Social Development she had direct authority over the funding, policies and directions of the ministries of Health, Education, Social Services, Women's Secretariat and Youth Secretariat, with a mandate to coordinate policies and programs. Her dedication to improving the lives of others, especially those trying to meet mental health challenges, led to a life long commitment to make a difference.” I always enjoyed our occasional chats. While Margaret respected Members from both sides of the aisle, she really didn't like a raucous atmosphere in the House.” - David Warner
“Margaret Birch was Ontario’s first female cabinet minister, appointed Minister Without Portfolio in 1972 by Premier Bill Davis. She was promoted to Provincial Secretary for Social Development in 1974. She served in cabinet until 1983 when she resigned her portfolio to become Parliamentary Assistant to the Premier. Margaret did not seek reelection in the 1985 election. That year she endorsed our friend Dennis Timbrell for the leadership of the Ontario PCs, following the retirement of Premier Davis.
Following Mrs Birch’s landmark appointment to cabinet in 1972 it was three years before more women joined the Executive Council, with the appointment of Bette Stephenson and Margaret Scrivener in 1975.
Before her election to the Legislature Margaret Birch had been very active in the Scarborough community, serving as Chair of the Scarborough Board of Health from 1963 to 1971, as a member of the Mental Health Council from 1967 to 1971, and Vice-Chair of the Social Planning Council from 1967 to 1970. Her dedicated service in the health care field was recognized by the naming of the Margaret Birch Wing of Scarborough Centenary Hospital.
Margaret and her husband Guy raised two children. Guy passed away in 1992.
On October 31, 2016 OAFP gave its Lifetime Achievement Award to Margaret Birch, in recognition for her pioneering achievements as a woman at the cabinet table and as a mark of the universal respect and affection for this most gracious lady. Many past and current MPPs from all parties attended the award ceremony – including female politicians Tracy MacCharles (L), Catherine Fife (NDP) and Peggy Sattler (NDP). Former PC Minister Elizabeth Witmer was also there.
Speaking personally, it was my privilege to serve as Parliamentary Assistant to Mrs Birch for two years after my election in 1981. In my remarks to the OAFP gathering I spoke of her wisdom, even temperament and the courtesy and respect she afforded everyone she encountered. I teased her good naturedly about her weekend trips to the family’s country retreat on Pelee Island. Margaret was always able to get communications out during these weekends if she needed me to do something. But when I wanted to reach her on a Saturday/Sunday I was told it was impossible to get hold of her out on the island. I concluded that there was a Bermuda Triangle in Lake Erie – signals could get out but nothing could penetrate in! To my delight nobody in the hall laughed as hard as Margaret!
Margaret Birch was much loved and admired, and deservedly so. She set the bar high for civility and hard work in the service of the people of Ontario.
I learned a lot from her. I’m a better person for having known her.” - Phil Gillies
Margaret Birch was the first female member of the formerly all male Albany Club in Toronto.