Art & Architecture

The Honourable Muriel McQueen Fergusson

The Honourable Muriel McQueen Fergusson, P.C. (1899-1997) was the first woman to serve as Speaker of the Senate of Canada. She was called to the Senate in 1953, and in 1972 she was appointed to the role of Speaker by the governor general after nomination by then prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Fergusson sat for artist Hubert Rogers (1898-1982) for a preliminary black and white sketch on grey paper (now in the collection of Library and Archives Canada) and as you might expect, the artist paid considerable attention to Ms. Fergusson’s facial features, the voluminous black robe, and her hands—one holds a document and the other her eyeglasses. This is a convention frequently seen in earlier Speaker’s portraits, but Rogers uses it persuasively. The tradition of commissioning portraits of the Speaker of the Senate predates Confederation.

This figure study clearly informed the sitter’s attitude in the oil portrait. The addition of the national flag of Canada, inaugurated in 1965 after a contentious national “flag debate”, stands as a major new symbol of the country in contrast to the ornately carved Speaker’s chair with the traditional Canadian Coat of Arms and motto A Mari Usque ad Mare (From Sea to Sea). It aligns Fergusson, and her reputation as a champion and advocate for women’s rights, with a new symbol of modern Canada. She is portrayed looking directly at the viewer, her head resting slightly on the back of the chair, a subtle smile, a pause from reading. The artist’s skillful brushwork and excellent draftsmanship depict the Speaker in a convincing moment of reflection—possibly on her accomplishments in public service representing New Brunswick in the Senate, grounded from the beginning in her dedication to advancing the rights of women and children. However, it seems more likely she would have been thinking about the work still to be done—achieving pay equity, instituting a national childcare program, or the prevention of family violence—all causes she championed.

Rogers was born in Alberton, Prince Edward Island, studied art after returning from World War I as part of the Canadian Department of Soldiers Civil Re-establishment program, and was acclaimed for his adventure and science fiction illustrations focusing on portraiture after World War II. Fergusson was born in Shediac, New Brunswick, also at the end of the 19th century. She read law in her father’s office, was called to the New Brunswick Bar twice and became the first woman on the Fredericton City Council. In 1953, she was the first woman to represent New Brunswick in the Senate.

The 50th anniversary of the tabling of the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada on December 7, 1970, has drawn commentary and challenges for us to act—from many politicians, journalists, and social justice organizations observing that Canada has changed significantly in the last five decades. In 2020 the Senate achieved gender parity for the first time—an important milestone (albeit for a brief time). This portrait is a tangible reminder of the important work of the Honourable Muriel Fergusson—a clear voice among a growing network of voices seeking social justice and equity for Canadians in the second half of the 20th century.


Kevin Rice is the Director of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

The Honourable Muriel McQueen Fergusson

Object details

Artist
Hubert Rogers
Canadian
Alberton, Prince Edward Island, 1898
Ottawa, Ontario, 1982

Title
The Honourable Muriel McQueen Fergusson

Date
1973

Medium
Oil on canvas

Dimensions
H: 156 cm
W: 125.5 cm

Credit
Senate's Artwork and Heritage Collection

Image copyright
Senate of Canada

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