Monday, 8 April 2013

50th Anniversary: Margaret Konantz O.B.E., Manitoba's first female M.P.

1962 election campaign, Winnipeg Tribune Archives

On April 8, 1963 Manitoba elected its first female Member of Parliament in the riding of Winnipeg South. Margaret Konantz (née Gordon) was born in Winnipeg in 1899 and grew up on Nassau Street in a household dedicated to volunteer work and public service. There was also a political twist; her mother Edith Rogers was elected Manitoba's first female MLA in 1920.

George and Margaret Konantz ca 1944, Winnipeg Tribune

In 1922 she married American businessman George Konantz and the couple settled in Winnipeg. Margaret dedicated herself to volunteer work with organizations such as the Junior League of Winnipeg, Community Chest and Winnipeg General Hospital. (She also became a top-level amateur golfer and skier.)

It was during World War II that her knowledge of volunteer organizations and interest in international affairs took her to the global stage.

In 1940 she organized Winnipeg's wartime Central Volunteer Bureau. Two years later she created the "Block Plan", a system by which salvage metals and other scrap was collected from Winnipeg homes for the war effort. Winnipeg's program received accolades from around North America and became the prototype for a Canada-wide system. (For more on this see Perrun.)

Konantz was sent to Britain by the federal government in 1944 to study both wartime and civilian volunteer services in that country and bring ideas back to Canada. 

For her body of wartime service she was awarded the Order of the British Empire

In 1961 she became the Canadian vice-president of the United Nations Association, an organization that she would remain involved with for the rest of her life.

1963 election ad, Winnipeg Free Press

Konantz's first run at federal politics was in the June 1962 general election against Gordon Chown, the Conservative incumbent who won the previous election by 20,000 votes. The campaign was a folksy one, full of photo ops and upbeat rallies. Big policies and the names of party leaders Pearson and Diefenbaker were barely mentioned.

On election night Konantz and Chown traded the lead a number of times. By 10:00 pm the numbers had turned in favour of Chown and he took seat by a 500 vote margin.

1964 election ad, Winnipeg Free Press

John Diefenbaker led his conservatives from the largest majority in Canadian parliamentary history to a minority. Konantz kept up her political profile by speaking publicly on national issues, knocking on doors and holding regular meetings with her campaign team. It paid off as less than a year later Canadians were back at the polls.

This time around Konantz's campaign tackled bigger issues. She called for more scholarships and bursaries, greater foreign aid and a national welfare program. She used her connections with Winnipeg's volunteer organizations to speak at dozens of luncheons and special events during the campaign period.

This new strategy brought her a great deal of positive press. Just four days before the election the  Winnipeg Free Press carried a column on their editorial page by Ellen Simmons:

Behind the showmanship is a serious, dedicated woman whose record of public service  - for her community, her city, her province, her country – has long been recognized…. Her record demonstrates with unmistakable clarity her concern for people…. She wants to see Winnipeg take its rightful place in national affairs and Canada its rightful place in international affairs.

April 9, 1963, Winnipeg Free Press

The race was a tight one but this time Konantz beat Chown by less than 500 votes. She became the first woman in Manitoba's history to take a seat in the House of Commons and just one of four women elected across the country. 

As a rookie M.P. she stayed on the back bench but sat on high profile standing committees, including External Affairs, Agriculture, and Banking and Commerce. 

In 1964 Konantz was a member of the high-profile and controversial "Flag Committee" tasked with recommending a new flag for the country. While there was strong national sentiment to retain the red ensign, she put her support behind a red and white design featuring a single red maple leaf.

It was her work with the UN that kept Konantz in the national spotlight. She toured the country speaking about UN initiatives and in 1963 went to New York to address its Economic and Social council. In 1965 she was part of the delegation that went to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the organization. 

Canadians were back at the polls in November 1965 and Konantz lost her seat to Conservative Bud Sherman. She told reporters that she was done with politics and would instead concentrate her efforts on her international work.

Konantz became the chair of Canada's United Nations Committee which took her around the world. When back in Canada she toured the country speaking about the organization's work. On May 11, 1967, while in Fredericton, New Brunswick preparing for a radio show, she died of a heart attack at the age of 68.

Margaret McIntyre Konantz O.B.E. was predeceased by her husband in 1954 and survived by two sons and one daughter. She is buried in St. John's Cemetery.


Her death came just days before she was to receive an honourary doctorate of law from the University of Manitoba. It was presented posthumously at their May convocation.

A Free Press editorial of May 12, 1967 stated: The world would be a much better place if more of us put as much dedication and energy into trying to improve it as did Margaret Konantz

On the floor of the House of Commons Bud Sherman, the man who defeated her in the previous election, rose after the reading of the Throne Speech to pay tribute to his one-time opponent: I had the privilege of running against Margaret Konantz in the autumn of 1965 which resulted in the myth that I defeated Mrs. Konantz.... No member who served with her in this House or in any capacity in the community or in the nation during her lifetime would say that I or anybody else ever defeated Margaret Konantz.

Margaret Konantz Fonds University of Manitoba (which includes a detailed biography)
Margaret McTavish Konantz Parliamentarian File
Women and Elections Simon Fraser University
Women in Parliament Parliamentary Library of Canada

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