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.
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.