Viola Mac Millan 1944-1964

Meet Viola R. MacMillan, Industry Trailblazer and PDAC’s Longest-Serving President

When thinking of women who have shaped PDAC and the Canadian mineral exploration and mining industry, it is hard to look past our very own Viola R. MacMillan. This pioneer helped grow a small regional association of prospectors into the internationally recognized brand that PDAC is today. She is the maker of many milestones for women in our sector, including being inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame in 1991. Viola remains PDAC’s longest-serving president, and there is even an award named after her. Learn more about this trailblazer and her remarkable career in mineral exploration and mining below.

By Virginia Heffernan

Imagine the look on the faces of three prominent Ontario Prospectors and Developers Association (OPDA) members when their new secretary-treasurer, Viola MacMillan, waltzed into their offices carrying slices of cake from its 10th anniversary banquet. The trio had deliberately skipped the event at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel the night before to protest the unprecedented inclusion of women at the 1942 annual meeting and—to the embarrassment of MacMillan and her team of organizers—left three empty chairs at the head table.

MacMillan’s humble offerings worked their magic though, according to her memoirs. After accepting the cake, each of the men apologized and supported her from that point onward. It was not the first time or the last, she would face up to adversity with characteristic guts, grace and determination.

But it was her first stab at organizing the OPDA’s annual meeting, an event that would become increasingly well-attended during her reign as its secretary-treasurer from 1941 to 1943, then as president from 1944 to 1964, when she resigned to avoid smearing the organization after being charged with fraud in what became known as the Windfall Affair. The OPDA had a name change in 1957 to the Prospectors & Developers Association (PDA).

Up until that point, OPDA meetings (the PDA was not renamed the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada, or PDAC, until 1986) had consisted of a few hours of informal discussion among members followed by executive elections. Dissatisfied with the limited agenda, MacMillan organized a full-day program that included prominent speakers from the federal and Ontario governments, followed by a four-course banquet attended by the wives of the prospectors.

That dinner in 1942 drew just 150 people, less than half of whom were members. By 1964, membership had swelled to more than ten times that number, mostly due to MacMillan’s efforts.

“Mrs. Macmillan has done it again!,” George Wardrope, Ontario’s  Minister of Mines enthused at the PDAC Convention on March 10, 1964, just before the Windfall scandal erupted. “Her election for the 21st time as the guiding genius of this organization is a tribute not only to the vim and verve and ability to get things done that is wrapped in a small package, but also speaks volumes about the good sense of the other members of the association who can recognize their good fortune in having the services of this little human dynamo at their disposal.”

Wardrope’s speech, sexist overtones notwithstanding, captured the conflicted feelings the mining fraternity had about Viola: a mixture of respect for her energy and accomplishments, and wonderment that a woman, especially one so small and feminine, could rise to such a prominent position in the man’s world of mineral exploration and mining.

Viola MacMillan was born Violet Rita Huggard in 1903 on a farm in the Muskoka Lakes area of Ontario. When she was just nine days old, her family moved to a farm down the road that her father would later sell to the developers of the Windermere Golf and Country club.

Her childhood as one of 15 offspring was impoverished and at the age of 12, she was forced to leave school to help her ailing father on the farm when her brothers enlisted in the army and went to fight the First World War. When the war ended four years later, Viola returned to school, burning the midnight oil to make up for lost times while continuing to keep up with her chores.

Though she never did get to high school, it was not for lack of determination, an attribute that would serve her well throughout her illustrious career. It was often said of MacMillan – who shortened her name as soon as she left home because she couldn’t bear the teasing the name “Violet” provoked - that she simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Her teenage dream was to become a stenographer, so instead of finishing high school, she enrolled at a business college in North Bay, where her sister Lizzie lived. That ambition also had to be postponed when her father could no longer afford to pay the school fees.

So in 1919, at the age of 16, she boarded a train to Windsor, where she worked through a series of low-paying jobs – first as a Bell telephone operator, later as a maid - to raise money for college. What seemed like bad luck at the time ended up being her ticket to fame and fortune. It was in Windsor that Viola met George MacMillan, her future husband, and had her first taste of the mining life.

MacMillan-Viola-v2Her introduction to mining was as strange as they come. George had relatives and, more importantly, a fiancé in New Liskeard, a few miles down the road from Cobalt and the Conigas silver mine. While visiting Viola’s sister Lizzie in the summer of 1922, the couple decided to take a detour to New Liskeard: George to see his fiancé and Viola to visit the mine, where one of her brothers had once worked.

Even though she had to draw upon all her powers of persuasion to be the first woman allowed underground at Conigas, she described it as “one of the most glorious experiences of my lifetime,” in her autobiography From the Ground Up, published posthumously in 2001. She used those same powers to convince George to ditch his girlfriend, who, according to Viola, “was not a great one for getting up, or washing the dishes.”

That visit changed her life. George and Viola married the next year and stayed together until George’s death in 1978. Just as importantly, her passion for mining had been ignited.

But it wasn’t until a few years later - when Viola was assisting in a law office and selling real estate - that a letter arrived from George’s uncle “Black Jack” MacMillan, a prospector in New Liskeard. He offered George a half stake in his mining claims in exchange for George’s contribution to the required assessment work. Unemployed and with nothing to lose, George agreed to go north. Viola followed him into the bush a few weeks later.

The duo never found anything on Black Jack’s claims, but from that moment onward Viola was hooked on mining and arranged to have every summer off to work in the bush. In 1933, she formed her own company, MacMillan Securities Ltd. to arrange financing deals for mineral exploration. Within two years, she was so successful that she set up shop on Toronto’s Bay St. All the while, the Great Depression was raging around her.

Although the MacMillans had been members of the PDA since its inception in 1932, they did not become seriously involved in the association’s business until they moved to Toronto in 1936. In 1941, George was elected PDA president and Viola became secretary-treasurer. It was wartime, and the prospecting industry was in a slump due to a lack of personnel and legislation such as Section 32-B, which effectively taxed prospectors on their equity in mining claims. It was up to the MacMillans to revive the sector.

Viola’s subsequent lobbying efforts in Ottawa paid off in the form of tax incentives for exploration and a nationwide series of free classes given by federal government geologists on how to search for strategic minerals important to the war effort. Impressed with her tireless efforts on behalf of the organization, the members of the PDA elected Viola MacMillan their leader in 1944.

The election of a female president was considered extremely progressive for an organization at the time. It would be another ten years before the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy would even grant MacMillan membership, let alone an executive position. How did she do it? As one prospector opined at the time: “She’s just plain in love with mining. And you know how it goes with a woman in love – she gets carried away. Viola carries us all away with her.”

MacMillan made such a dedicated and effective president that she was reelected repeatedly. For example, when she realized the fixed price for gold in the 1940s was killing the Canadian gold mining industry, she bought a new hat and white gloves and traveled to Washington to lobby for a policy change. Unsuccessful but undeterred, she spent the next two months in Ottawa trying to convince federal politicians that gold miners needed financial assistance to stay alive, with the result that Ottawa introduced the Emergency Gold Mining Assistance Act.

“PDA was her life.”  “No one was willing or able to spend as much time on it as she did,” explained Past President Robert Ginn after her death.

Viola’s 20-year reign as president of the PDA coincided with tremendous growth in the mining sector and several major discoveries, including the Eldorado Great Bear discovery in the Northwest Territories, the Steep Rock iron and Campbell Red Lake gold mines in northern Ontario, the Bathurst base metal camp in New Brunswick, and several uranium discoveries in Saskatchewan.

Ironically, it was one of Canada’s biggest discoveries, the Kidd Creek deposit near Timmins, Ontario, which led to MacMillan’s demise. The discovery in 1964 touched off a torrent of penny stock speculation that involved one of her companies, Windfall Oil and Mines, which had claimed ground around the big discovery.

Although the first hole drilled into the Windfall claims came up empty, it took the company almost a month to release the assay results. During that time, speculation that Windfall had intersected a major find comparable to the Kidd Creek discovery nearby was rampant and the price of the penny stock skyrocketed to $5.70, only to crash when the truth was finally revealed. 

The resulting public outcry over trading losses related to Windfall led to a Royal Commission investigation that resulted in a charge of fraud against the MacMillans. Although they were acquitted a few years later, Viola was subsequently charged with wash trading – the act of trading shares to create an appearance of market activity – fined $10,000, and sentenced to nine months in jail. She was released on parole after serving only seven weeks of her sentence.

Many felt that MacMillan was treated unfairly given the Wild West attitude of Bay Street at that time and the failure of the regulators to insist on earlier disclosure of the Windfall assays. “All of the penny stocks were going wild and there were bucket shops up and down Bay Street. It was within this atmosphere that Windfall took place,” said Justice Patrick Hartt, who acted as counsel on the Royal Commission investigation. “I think the Royal Commission operated strictly in isolation, out of context of what was happening on Bay Street.”

In 1978, just after her beloved George died, the federal government pardoned MacMillan. She had become a recluse in the years since her conviction, but after the pardon, she made a tentative return to the welcoming arms of the mining fraternity.

MacMillan was eventually inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame and, on her 90th birthday, became a member of the Order of Canada. In recognition of her $1.25 million donation, the gallery that houses the William Pinch collection of minerals at the Museum of Nature in Ottawa is named in her hounour.

In 1993, The “Queen Bee” of mining passed away. She will always be remembered, at least in mining circles, for her success in building PDAC from a small group of prospectors into a national organization of professionals recognized the world over. But most of all, for her unparalleled love of mining.

Meet the other women featured in our Women's History Month campaign