Elizabeth MacCallum

Canada’s first female ambassador

[Elizabeth MacCallum]
Elizabeth MacCallum

For three decades in the 20th century, Canada’s leading expert on the Middle East was Queen’s alumna Elizabeth MacCallum. She had impressive credentials that included a Queen’s MA in 1919, doctoral research at Columbia University, then 10 years spent in New York’s prestigious Foreign Policy Association. Before MacCallum, Canada didn’t have much of an understanding or interest in the Middle East, but over her years of persistence, she left an indelible mark on the country’s foreign policy.

The youngest of four children, Ms. MacCallum was born in 1895 in Ker Khan, Turkey to Canadian Presbyterian missionaries. In her youth, she saw nationalist movements that challenged the Ottoman Empire, and her experiences in Arab and Muslim countries informed her longstanding belief that much of the area’s conflict was a product of Western intrusion into a land they didn’t understand.

In 1910, Ms. MacCallum and her family moved to Canada, settling in Kingston. She attended Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute where she excelled, earning scholarships and prizes that eventually took her to a master's degree at Queen’s.

An outstanding student, MacCallum earned a master’s degree in English and history, winning gold medals in the two subjects. She also showed a strong aptitude for political science, philosophy and political economy. Professor O.D. Skelton (the future under-secretary of state for external affairs) recognized her hard work and intelligence by selecting her for an elite tutorial course in political theory and history.

Ms. MacCallum’s missionary parents often didn’t have enough money to support her academic ambitions, so she had to put her studies on hold repeatedly to help support the family. Two years after graduating from Queen’s, she began doctoral studies at Columbia University, though left before completion in 1925 to work at New York’s Foreign Policy Association. For the next six years, she worked in the association’s research department, she became an expert on the Middle East, writing three books and more than 30 articles about Syria, Palestine, Turkey, Albania, Egypt, Iran, and the Balkans.

In 1942, Ms. MacCallum was invited to join the Department of External Affairs due to her expertise on the Middle East.

At first, Canada’s policies and her gender kept her from doing her fullest work, but by the end of the Second World War, her specialized knowledge had drawn interest and respect by senior officials.

Her greatest challenge came in 1947, when she was selected by Prime Minister Mackenzie King as a delegate to the United Nations’ Special Committee on Palestine, giving advice and mentorship to the Canadian representative. Political scholar Zachariah Kay wrote that “there was hardly a document dealing with Palestine during the forties which MacCallum did not write, read or comment on.”

Ms. MacCallum helped to draft Canada’s formal statement on the ensuing report and worked with Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to try to prevent future conflict in the region through political means.

In recognition of her impressive political work, Queen’s awarded Ms. MacCallum an honorary degree in 1952. Two years later, she became Canada’s first female ambassador, putting her extensive knowledge of the Middle East to work in Lebanon. She was later inducted into the Order of Canada.