It’s a long journey from the tobacco fields of southwestern Ontario to being the first woman appointed to the provincial cabinet, and Margaret Birch got there through Scarborough.
Born in Leamington in 1921, the former Margaret Stewart left school at age 12 to care for five younger siblings following her father’s death. She went to work outside the home at age 16, earning $3 a day in the tobacco fields before moving on to the bottling line at the Heinz ketchup plant. Margaret married newspaper editor Guy Birch, and moved to Scarborough to raise their two children.
Margaret was active in her new community, beginning as a hospital volunteer. She was named chair of the Scarborough Board of Health in 1963, and eventually joined Scarborough’s mental health council and social planners’ council. She was instrumental in finding the land and support for a new hospital to serve the rapidly growing population, and in 1967 Scarborough Centenary Hospital was opened. In 1970, she was named Scarborough’s Citizen of the Year.
Provincial politics beckoned and running as a Tory, in 1971 she won the riding of Scarborough East with 41 percent of the vote. Premier Bill Davis named her to his cabinet in 1972, making her the first woman to have a seat at the provincial big table. Margaret was also the first woman member admitted to the Albany Club, the Toronto institution that has been a Tory bastion since the days of John A. Macdonald.
Margaret was appointed provincial secretary for social development in 1974, reflecting her interest in health care, youth, seniors and veterans’ services. When Centenary Hospital expanded in the 1980’s, the Margaret Birch Wing was named in her honour. After 14 years at the legislature, she retired from provincial politics, but maintains an active interest in Scarborough and her community.
Photo provided by the Ajax Pickering Hospital Foundation.