[Agnes] Macphail was elected to the House of Commons in 1922, the first woman in history to become a Member of Parliament. Everyone expected her to be quiet and ladylike, and to raise her voice only in defence of home and family values. Instead, Macphail astonished and irritated the other honourable members by stepping outside her “sphere” and joining the debate on issues like farm policy and foreign affairs. She even dared to talk about prison reform, a topic considered utterly unsuitable for a woman. In 1925, she made her first official foray into the field when she introduced a resolution calling for a meaningful program of prison labour.
As the years went by, her office became a centre for ex-prisoners who had nowhere else to bring their grievances, as well as a meeting place for reformers. She distilled their thoughts into recommendations that she brought before the House. Among other things, she called for the creation of an independent parole board with judicial status. She maintained that all convicts should be eligible for parole after serving one-third of their sentences; and she constantly reiterated that parole decisions should be based, first and foremost, on the convict’s degree of reformation.
Her efforts were publicized by Harry Anderson, crusading editor of The Globe and Mail. In other newspapers, she was ridiculed as a “hysterical sob sister” and “sentimentalist.”
With the onset of the Depression, there was a rise in prison population, but no increase in funds to build new institutions. Out of necessity, more tickets of leave were granted, especially to convicts who were lucky enough to have a job waiting for them on the outside.
For those who remained behind bars, conditions in the penitentiaries went from bad to unbearable. In 1932, Kingston Penitentiary erupted in a riot that lasted six days. Over the next five years, there would be 15 more riots in institutions across the country. Savage whippings were administered, sometimes to 20 men at a time, but the violence went on.
Suddenly, the prison system was in the headlines, and people started to listen to Agnes Macphail.
In 1935, Macphail made an unannounced visit to Kingston Penitentiary, insisting that she had a right to do so as a Member of Parliament. What she saw appalled her.
She decided to pull out all the stops to pressure the government into holding an inquiry. Her bitterest opponent in Parliament was Hugh Guthrie, Prime Minister R. B. Bennett’s Minister of Justice. Guthrie tried to discredit her by claiming that her information about prison conditions came from a notorious sex offender.
Bennett’s Conservatives were defeated in 1935, and a year later the new Liberal government announced the creation of a Royal Commission to Investigate the Penal System of Canada. It was a sweet moment for Macphail.
Appointed to head the Commission was Mr. Justice Joseph Archambault. The other members were R. W. Craig and Harry Anderson of The Globe and Mail. (Anderson would die within the year and be replaced by J. C. McRuer.)
The Archambault Commission was the most comprehensive study of penitentiaries ever undertaken in Canada up to that date. Its report, which was tabled in January 1938, would become the bible for those who wanted to introduce modern methods to penology in Canada. The Archambault report echoed the proposals that Macphail had been making for many years. Though most of the Archambault recommendations related to prison conditions, they had a lot to say about parole as well.
At the time, the federal penitentiary system had an inmate population of 3,250. Seventy-two percent were return visitors. The Archambault Commission was certain that the rate of recidivism could be reduced if some real effort could be made to rehabilitate offenders. The commission severely criticized the Remission Branch for making parole a clemency measure rather than a tool for reformation. It also deplored the fact that the Branch was so susceptible to political pressure.
The report castigated the Branch for its operating methods. Decisions were based on the most meagre information. When applications for parole were received, there was no attempt to inquire into the social background of the prisoner or to compile a case history. Part of the problem was lack of resources. The Branch had a total staff of four: the chief of the department and three assistants seconded from the RCMP.
By far, the most important and far-reaching of the Archambault proposals was for a prison commission that would have full authority over the management of penitentiaries and act as an independent federal parole board.
Macphail was vindicated. Archambault sent her a copy of the report with the inscription: “To Miss Agnes Macphail, M.P., courageous pioneer and untiring worker on behalf of prison reform in Canada.”
Macphail and her supporters had shown that, whatever its stated goals may have been, the Canadian penal system was really based on the principle of retribution. And retribution did not work. It injured people without improving them. It failed to rehabilitate and it also failed to deter. In other words, it was not just wrong, it was useless.