From small town girl to politics with a capital P



Photo courtesy of Betty-Ann McPhedran. Jack McPhedran, Marilou’s father, was known as ‘the flying vet’, as he was a large animal veterinarian who flew to farms, landing in the fields. L to R: Jack McPhedran, Marilou McPhedran, Colleen Cram, Bev Ann Murray, Colleen’s mother and father, Fran and Wallace Cram and Colleen’s little brother, David Cram.

By Tony Eu

Neepawa Banner/Neepawa Press

Of the nine new non-partisans that will be joining the senate, three of them are from Manitoba. Of those three, one comes from close to home; meet Marilou McPhedran, a human rights lawyer, professor at the University of Winnipeg and a Neepawa girl, born and raised.

McPhedran grew up in Neepawa for the entirety of her childhood, in a house on the south end of town. “My father was the large animal veterinarian,” McPhedran shared, “and across the street, his best friend, one of the town doctors, Dr. Jacobson, had eight children,” she continued. 

“The eldest was a daughter, who was one of my closest friends and is still a very close friend. Unlike how my sons were raised, living in Toronto and New York, our lifestyle as children was, looking back, incredibly free,” McPhedran remarked on growing up in Neepawa. Continuing, she shared a story that fully showcased that freedom.

“My parents rented pastureland and kept all kinds of horses and sometimes other animals there. I would have been eight or nine years old and my sister Betty-Ann, would have been just six or seven, we would leave, go down to the pasture, saddle up our horses and we’d be gone for the day,” she said. “No cell phones, no way of knowing exactly where we were and that was not unusual for kids our age, at that time, growing up in [Neepawa],” she added.

McPhedran shared the impact of having those types of experiences, saying, “[It was] a tremendous amount of personal freedom, which I think built, for us, a very strong foundation of independence and a sense of self, a sense of capacity, that we could take on numerous challenges and we would be just fine.”

Extra-curricular involvement

For McPhedran, the time spent involved with school are some of her best memories; in fact, she mentioned that her favourite activities while growing up where the ones involved with, “the extra-curricular life of being a student leader.”

“I have very strong memories of… spending a lot of time in school; elementary school and then Grade 7 and 8 at the intermediate school and then at Neepawa Area Collegiate Institute (NACI). My best friend through all those years and still a very close friend is Bev Ann Murray,” McPhedran noted. “We did just about everything together, we were very good students, academically, but we were also very involved in all kinds of volunteers activities, including student council. By the time we graduated from NACI, I was the student president and she was the editor of the yearbook. Our friends tended to be the circle of people who were very actively engaged in the town, as well as in the school,” she added.

Continuing, McPhedran shared a story of one of the many projects that she and Murray took on. “We had some speakers come to the school to talk about the desperate need for books in various Caribbean islands. These two young men were focused on the island of St. Lucia and they said if anybody could organize shipments of books to them, they would make sure that they reached the various schools in St. Lucia. So Bev Ann and I decided we would organize a book drive. We worked with other volunteers in the school and we collected hundreds of books,” she said. 

As the girls started to store all the books they had collected, McPhedran said, they realized they hadn’t figured out how they were going to get the books from Neepawa to the two men in Winnipeg. Asking around, they were told the best way to ship them would be in wooden shipping containers.

“Somehow we managed to source [the containers], we got a bunch of them sent out to Neepawa, we filled them all up and Bev Ann’s uncle had a transport company. She talked her uncle into shipping all the books,” said McPhedran, recounting their solution.

“We took on projects like that quite often,” she added, “where we weren’t exactly sure how we were going to get it done. But our sense of, ‘we’ll find a way, we’ll work together’ and a very strong sense, in a small town, that we could ask for help and that the volunteerism, the community spirit, was strong enough that we were pretty sure we would get that help and indeed that is what happened.”

The academic experience

When asked what her favourite and least favourite classes were in high school, McPhedran answered, “I don’t really think I saw high school that way, I enjoyed the academic experience.” That being said, she mentioned that her favourite class was math, though not because of the curriculum content. “I don’t think I did all that well in math, but one of my favourite classes was math, because Mr. Middlemas was our teacher,” she explained. “He had a wonderful command of English, with all sorts of unusual expressions like ‘Balderdash.’ So although I didn’t excel in math, what I learned from my math class, more than anything, was the skill of being an engaging teacher.”

McPhedran remarked, “I think what I took away from my education in Neepawa was the importance of how you treat people, the need for students to be treated with respect and for learning opportunities to be customized as much as possible to what students need in order to do their best to learn.”

After graduating high school, McPhedran only knew three things about her immediate future. “I knew that I was going to university, I knew that unlike my father, I was not going to study science and I knew that whatever it was that I did with my university education, I need to be able to support myself,” she said. “My goal was to not find myself dependent on a husband. From a very young age my goal was to be self-sufficient, but my choices at university were really about what I wanted to learn,” she added.

With those three things, McPhedran headed to the University of Winnipeg (UofW), taking psychology as her major. “My goal was to work with children and help children. I had started at the age of 15, with assignments in the summer working in a range of different community organizations in inner city Winnipeg and also in West Hawk Lake area for the summer, working at summer camps with children,” she mentioned.

Natural lawyer

Psychology, however, didn’t pan out and McPhedran switched her major to religious studies. She also became heavily involved with student government at UofW, as she had been at NACI. “I ended up being elected the first woman student president of the University of Winnipeg Students Association (UWSA) and that really changed my life,” she remarked. “My experience being president at NACI, with friends in the student government with me in a very supportive, collaborative, collegial way, that was not my experience at the UWSA,” McPhedran stated.

“As the first woman student president, there was considerable backlash directed at me. I didn’t have a name for it at the time, but now I understand it to be sexism and maybe to some extent ageism, because I was only 19 when I was elected,” she said. “That combination meant I actually experienced some quite intimidating situations of discrimination, on the basis of sex and perhaps also on the basis of age, directed at me because I was a young woman as the student president,” she added.

The backlash and discrimination that McPhedran faced prompted her to finish her Bachelor of Arts degree (BA) in religious studies at the University of Toronto (UofT). It was during this time that her focus to help children began to shift. “My desire to work with and help children translated over time to a more general commitment to human rights,” she noted.


Submitted photo. A recent photo of Marilou McPhedran, taken at the University of Winnipeg.

As McPhedran was finishing her BA in religious studies, a professor said something to her that would change the course of her life. “This professor, he wasn’t particularly flattering in what he said. But he basically said, ‘You are a natural lawyer, you need to write the LSAT. You should not continue to be a professor of religious studies, that’s really not your nature. You have the kind of mind and the kind of way of organizing information that means you will naturally be a lawyer and you need to go to law school’.”

Up until this point, McPhedran had never even considered being a lawyer or going to law school. Now, her work as a human rights lawyer is one of her crowning achievements.

‘Small p’ politics

As with her other focal points in life, her involvement in politics has roots in McPhedran’s childhood. “In the ‘small p’ politics sense, I was involved in politics from Grade 1, at Hazel M. Kellington [elementary school]. Ms. Kellington was my Grade 1 teacher and our principal was a woman, most of my teachers all through grade school were women. These women had a tremendous influence on me and we saw from a very early age… this leadership, [so] we could always see ourselves as leaders,” she remarked.

McPhedran’s first memory of being involved in ‘small p’ politics was in Grade 2, when she was one of the student organizers for the Christmas pageant. She continued this involvement throughout her school years, being the social convener, planning dances and as part of the student council. “That’s ‘small p’ politics, that’s what I would now call community engagement. In this case the community happened to be our school. But that kind of leadership – organizing, having a vision, bringing people together, working as volunteers, continuing to drive an agenda to its completion, [that] was something I started to do at a very early age,” McPhedran said.

‘Capital P’ politics

McPhedran’s first interaction with ‘capital P’ politics was at the age of 12, when her father was asked to run in the provincial election. “I was very deeply involved in that campaign,” McPhedran said. “I absolutely believed that my father was the best person for the job and also that he was going to win. I personally canvassed our own neighbourhood and a couple of other polling areas and I kept my own list of people that I had talked to, on their doorstep, face to face, who told me they were going to vote for my dad. When he lost, I knew that people had lied to me,” she recounted.

McPhedran’s father ran for election a second time, once again, she was heavily involved in the campaign and once again, he lost. 

“I had a real reality check in what it takes to move from ‘small p’ politics in community engagement to ‘capital P’ politics; how hard it was, the heartbreak that’s often involved [and] also how important [it is],” McPhedran said. She elaborated, “We had many conversations in my family as to why my dad would do this. He’s leaving a successful veterinary practice where he was important to a lot of farmers and to our economy. [Why would he] want to and take on a job in government as an elected representative? It came back over and over again in those family conversations to the importance of investing in our democracy.”

Her years spent growing up in Neepawa and the experiences she had while doing so helped shape her into the woman she is today. “It took me quite a few years to understand how much the freedom that I enjoyed as a child, all the way through to when I left Neepawa at the age of 17, were in fact the foundation that I drew on as an adult in being able to feel confident to take on challenges,” she said. 

“A lot of that had to do with the sense of safety and support that was not only based in my family, but it extended into my neighbourhood and into the school community, that allowed me to have many different experiences of different kinds of leadership and to feel confident as a young woman,” McPhedran added. 

As a final remark, McPhedran noted, “I ended up being the first woman student president at the UofW, I completed my BA at the UofT, then I went to law school at Osgoode Hall Law School, where I was also student president. That gravitation to leadership and a sense that I could be a strong leader even though I was a woman, that came from my upbringing in Neepawa.”