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NDP MP Margaret Mitchell speaking at the House of Commons in 1983, where she often was met with derision for promoting women’s issues. (Andy Clark/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP MP Margaret Mitchell speaking at the House of Commons in 1983, where she often was met with derision for promoting women’s issues. (Andy Clark/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Obituary

MP Margaret Mitchell famously called wife abuse ‘no laughing matter’ Add to ...

Words were important for Margaret Mitchell. She began her career as a social worker in the poorest areas of Vancouver, but she refused to call the people she was there to help – most of them on welfare – her “clients.” To her they were simply “citizens,” with the same rights to dignity, work and legal protections as everyone else. Elected to the House of Commons four times by the riding of Vancouver East, she was the longest-serving female MP in the House when she left Parliament in 1993 after 14 tumultuous years.

The incident that made her famous occurred while Pierre Trudeau was prime minister and her party, the NDP, was led by Ed Broadbent. Ms. Mitchell did not feel warmly toward the PM, who persisted in calling her the Honourable Lady instead of the Honourable Member, the term he used to refer to men in the House. She felt it was an attempt to diminish her.

But that slight paled in comparison to what happened on May 12, 1982. Ms. Mitchell had served on the Standing Committee on Health, Welfare and Social Affairs, which had heard over a period of several months about the suffering of battered women who had limited legal recourse and no safe place in their community to escape from their abusers.

During question period, Ms. Mitchell rose to ask the minister responsible for the status of women what action the government will take to protect battered women. She began by stating that “one in 10 Canadian husbands beat their wives regularly,” but she could get no further because of an outbreak of laughter and heckling that drowned her out. “Madam Speaker, this is no laughing matter,” she pushed on defiantly after a pause.

In her self-published memoirs, No Laughing Matter (2008), she does not name the “Honourable Members” who behaved so callously that day, but noted that they were Tories. One said within earshot: “I don’t beat my wife. Do you, George?”

The minister responsible, Judy Erola, replied that she did not find the men’s derision amusing “and neither do the women of Canada.” She promised to fund more transition houses under the Canada Assistance Plan. Ms. Mitchell next asked the solicitor-general to take action to require that the courts and law-enforcement agencies start to treat spousal assault as a criminal offence. Out of 10,000 incidents of violence, the joint standing committee had learned, only two convictions had been obtained.

The incident topped the evening news and made her name. It has now achieved everlasting life on YouTube.

The next morning, she moved for an apology from the House, but according to her memoirs, “some MPs refused, defeating my motion.”

“Margaret took a private problem and turned it into a public issue,” commented her life-long friend Darlene Marzari, a former Vancouver alderman. “What was once unmentionable now could not be denied. Women’s shelters were established, programs to train judges how to deal with domestic violence were introduced, all in the context of the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Her response to the men’s laughter was a foundational moment of the women’s movement in this country.”

Ms. Mitchell died peacefully on International Women’s Day, March 8, at home in her False Creek condominium in Vancouver, surrounded by friends, at the age of 91. She had become frail in recent years and lost her mobility.

Margaret Anne Learoyd was born into a close-knit family as one of four children of Clarence, a high-school teacher, and Ernestine (née Dutton) Learoyd, who had trained as a nurse. Soon after Margaret’s birth, in Brockville, Ont., on July 17, 1925, her father was appointed principal of the high school in Cayuga, on the Grand River about 35 kilometres from Hamilton.

Ernestine suffered from tuberculosis and Margaret’s childhood was marred by her mother’s long absences for treatment. With only one lung, Ernestine died of pneumonia while Margaret was in her second year of university.

After graduating from Cayuga high school as valedictorian, she attended Hamilton’s McMaster University, supporting herself with summer jobs at Bigwin Inn in Muskoka and loans from her maiden aunts, Hilda and Alma Dutton. The Second World War was still raging when, as a server at Bigwin, she first saw prejudice in action. “I was shocked when the German head waitress placed lunch guests with Jewish names at the worst tables, after long waits,” she recalled in her memoirs.

After McMaster, she studied social work at the University of Toronto. This was followed by a job for the next five years at Toronto’s YWCA as program director at two of its branches.

When she was 28, the Red Cross sent her to work with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in postwar Japan and Korea, where she saw an exhausted and impoverished population just after the Korean War. She was part of a group of young women whose job was to distribute supplies at military hospitals, write and mail letters for the wounded, do some shopping and keep up morale. “But mostly,” she later wrote, “we spent time just talking to homesick patients.”

She had made friends with many young people from Australia and New Zealand while working for the Red Cross and in 1955, after her stint in Korea, she decided to visit them and see something of the South Pacific.

When it was time to return to Canada, she boarded the ocean liner SS Oronsay in Auckland, New Zealand. It was here she first met “a loud Aussie and a great tease,” Claude Mitchell. In her book, she recalled that he was about 40, with a clipped mustache and the film-star looks of David Niven.

Two years later, they were married in Vienna, where she had taken another short-term job with the Red Cross, this time working with Hungarian refugees pouring across the Austrian border in the wake of the failed Hungarian revolution. After she accepted his proposal, he had followed her there. They honeymooned on a trip through half a dozen European countries on a noisy old motorcycle – the bride riding in a sidecar – that the groom had repaired using bottle caps and fencing wire.

They settled in Vancouver, where Claude Mitchell was to encourage and support her in all her projects. She credited him with making her bolder, less conventional and more confident. Their friend Shane Simpson, now an NDP member of the British Columbia legislature, recalled their favourite party trick: Ms. Mitchell would smoke a cigarette while her husband knocked off the ashes with a flick of his Australian bull whip.

In her 30s, Ms. Mitchell underwent surgery for ovarian cancer; the couple gave up their dream of having children. She threw herself into social work, which she believed was best done as community development – encouraging disadvantaged people to organize to better their lives.

“I was a student at the UBC school of social work and Margaret was working with single moms at Little Mountain [social-housing project],” recalls Ms. Marzari, who met Ms. Mitchell in 1966 at her storefront office known as the Red Door. “Margaret wanted to empower the single moms, to give them a voice to talk to their landlord, which was the provincial government, about their problems.”

The problems included kids going to school without breakfast, the stigma of welfare, the lack of training opportunities, the humiliation of having to prove that there were no men’s shoes under the bed or monthly payments would be cut off.

A network of community groups sprung up over time, and solutions arose from the people themselves. In Strathcona, another low-income area, people fought off the city’s attempt to tear down their aging homes to push through a freeway.

By the early 1970s, she was manager of the Vancouver Resources Board, which integrated social services in every neighbourhood. “She wanted to make sure communities solved their own problems and we were just there to support them,” said Patsy George, who had worked under Ms. Mitchell then. Her staff, she added, “respected her and drew inspiration from her. She stood firm, particularly on violence against women.”

After the NDP government of Dave Barrett lost the 1975 election and Social Credit returned to power, cuts were made to the programs she had created and Ms. Mitchell started to think about entering politics.

She first won Vancouver East for the NDP in 1979, taking it from the Liberal incumbent. She knew thousands of people and had close contacts with every ethnic group in the riding, where she and her husband then lived.

“Margaret was an incredibly down-to-earth person. She never chased after fame and she never wavered from her principles,” said Mr. Simpson, who had grown up in Vancouver public housing with a single mom. He’d met Ms. Mitchell as a teenager and later became her researcher in Ottawa.

Besides the famous 1982 spousal-violence incident, she is remembered for what she did for Chinese-Canadian citizens. When two elderly Chinese constituents showed her their head tax papers, and told her about the racism that fractured their families in the first half of the 20th century, she initiated a campaign in Ottawa for redress. It ended with an apology and a symbolic payment to the families of head-tax payers, under then-prime minister Stephen Harper in 2006, but by then Margaret Mitchell was no longer an MP.

Her legacy is the Margaret Mitchell Fund for Women, held by the Vancouver Community Foundation, which supports scholarships and training programs for female applicants, including support for child care. Having voted against a pay hike MPs had given themselves in 1980, she had over the years banked the extra pay, and later added the proceeds from her summer home in the Gulf Islands to create the fund.

Claude Mitchell died of colon cancer in 1991. Ms. Mitchell was also predeceased by her three siblings, Bill, Ted and Betty. She leaves a host of friends and admirers and many nieces and nephews.

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