Happy Persons Day!
And yes, there is no missing apostrophe; this is how Canada commemorates, on October 18th every year, the 1929 Court decision giving women the right to sit in the Senate. The case was known as ‘Edwards v.Canada (Attorney General)’, and it was brought by five women, who sought to clarify the terminology used in the British North America (BNA) Act of 1867.
The BNA Act set out the powers and responsibilities of the provinces and the federal government. It used the term ‘persons’ when referring to more than one person, and the word ‘he’ when referring to one person. This led to the Act being interpreted as saying that only a man could be a person, thereby preventing women from participating in politics or affairs of the state.
Emily Murphy was the first woman magistrate of the British Empire and Judge in a newly created Women’s Court in Edmonton. On her first day in court a defendant’s lawyer challenged her ruling on the grounds that she was not a ‘person’ and therefore not qualified to act as a magistrate. Alice Jamieson, a magistrate in Calgary, was similarly challenged.
Women’s groups began pressurising the Government to appoint a woman to the Senate, but the ‘person’ argument was used to keep them out. If the word ‘person’ only applied to men, then, the argument went, no woman could be a qualified person to sit in the Senate.
By this time women’s suffrage was well established in Canada; provincial voting rights for women were secured in the individual states over the period 1916-1918, and women were given the right to vote federally from January 28 1916. The next steps were to become involved in the executive.
In 1927 Emily Murphy and four other prominent Canadian women – Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards – asked the Supreme Court to determine if the word ‘person’ in the BNA Act included women. After five weeks of deliberation, the Court decided it did not. Emily and her colleagues, who came to be known as ‘The Famous Five’, took the case to London, to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain, which was at the time Canada’s highest court of appeal.
On October 19 1929 Lord Sankey, the Lord Chancellor, announced the decision of the five lords:
“The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. And to those who would ask why the word ‘person’ should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?”
Each one of the Famous Five was active in the fight to improve conditions for women across the board, all contributing to the legal system in one form or another. In 1979, on the 50th anniversary of the Privy Council’s decision, the Canadian Government instituted the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case, to recognise the promotion of equality for girls and women in Canada.
In my view, those women were dames of the highest order…a shining example of the power of female commitment and persistence. Happy Persons Day!