October 18th is Persons Day in Canada.
Today marks the anniversary of the day in 1929 when the historic decision to include women in the legal definition of “persons” was handed down by Canada’s highest court of appeal. This gave some women the right to be appointed to the Senate of Canada and paved the way for women’s increased participation in public and political life.
It is important to note that this decision did not include all women, such as Indigenous women and women of Asian heritage and descent. While exclusionary, this decision did mark a critical advancement in the fight for gender equality in Canada.
In Canada, the British North America Act of 1867 set out the powers and responsibilities of the provinces and the federal government. The Act used the word “persons” when referring to more then one person, and “he” when referring to one person. Many argued that the Act indicated that only a man could be a person, which prevented women from participating fully in the political process.
In 1927, five women (who have since become known as the Famous Five) launched a legal challenge that would mark a turning point for equality rights in Canada. Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Henrietta Muir Edwards were journalists, politicians, reformers and activists from Alberta who asked the Supreme Court of Canada to answer if the work “Person” included female persons. After 5 weeks of debate, the Supreme Court decided that it did not.
This did not deter the Famous Five who then escalated their case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, which was the highest court of appeal at the time.
On October 18th, 1929, Lord Sankey – Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, announced the decision:
“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?”
Not only did this historical decision allow women to be appointed to the Senate and House of Commons, it also meant that women could no longer be denied rights based on a narrow interpretation of the law.
To put this into context, women in Canada have only been considered to be “persons” under the law, for 93 years. https://youtu.be/njAO38Og1-k
This decision allowed Cairine Wilson to be sworn in as Canada’s first female senator on Feb 15th, 1930. This meant that women could now continue to work for greater rights and opportunities through the Senate and House of Commons.
The fight for truly equal rights continues, but today we honour the bravery and determination of the Famous Five who helped to pave the way for women to participate fully in all aspects of life in Canada.