Ninety years ago, on 18 October 1929, a momentous ruling officially declared Canadian women to be Persons and eligible for participation at all levels of government, including the Senate. White Canadian women, that is; the situation for Indigenous women was much more complicated.
For Indigenous individuals in Canada, participation in politics began with obtaining the right to vote, which frequently entailed the loss of aboriginal rights and status. In fact, unconditional voting was not granted to Indigenous people in all Canadian federal and provincial jurisdictions until 1969. Indigenous women faced additional discrimination; they lost their Indian status if they married a non-Indigenous man — until Bill C-31 reversed this in 1985. Despite additional legal amendments over the years, gender discrimination still has not been eradicated from Canadian government policies concerning Indigenous peoples. Deplorable as this race-gender discrimination is, the rights of Indigenous women were ignored until some level of gender equality had been granted to white women. The gradual process of attaining legal equality for white women culminated in The “Persons” Case, officially known as Edwards vs The Attorney General of Canada.
The “Persons” Casecame about when five women’s rights activists in Alberta joined forces to challenge the interpretation of the British North America Act, the 1867 law that had created and governed the Dominion of Canada. The BNA Act stated that only “qualified persons” could be considered for a Senate position. Since only men had possessed legal rights in 1867, the phrase was interpreted as referring only to men; women were not considered “Persons” under the law.
The five activists later became known as the Famous Five: Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Henrietta Muir Edwards. Each had worked in her own way to improve the lives of women and children.
Emily Murphy helped reform the law to protect women’s rights to property and, in 1916, became the first female magistrate in the British Empire. Irene Parlby organized and became the first president of the United Farm Women’s Association in 1916; in 1921, she was elected to the Alberta Legislature and became the first female cabinet minister in Alberta (and the second in the British Empire). Nellie McClung was a leading suffragist and in 1921 was elected to the Alberta Legislature. Louise McKinney fought for women’s voting and property rights and, in 1917, became the first woman elected to the Alberta Legislature (and the first in any Legislative Assembly in the British Empire). Henrietta Muir Edwards helped found the National Council of Women of Canada in 1893 and the Victorian Order of Nurses in 1897; in 1878, she also published Canada’s first magazine produced by and for working women.
These five women were part of a large international campaign for gender equality. The right of women to vote in elections was fundamental to this equality; agitation for the vote, known as the suffrage movement, began in the late 1800s. As political gatherings of women became more noticeable, male opposition to the political activism of women grew. Women found it more and more difficult to meet, so assemblies began to be held under the pretence of “Pink Teas.” Tea parties swathed in lace and pink ribbons disguised the true purpose of the gatherings and discouraged the attendance of men. If a meeting was interrupted, conversation shifted to frivolous and innocuous topics.
In 1927, using a special provision in the Supreme Court Act, which stated that five people could petition the Court to interpret details of the BNA Act, the Famous Five petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada to rule upon whether Canadian women could be appointed as senators. In 1928, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that women were not Persons under the law.
Undeterred, the Famous Five sent their petition to the Privy Council of England, which at that time outranked the authority of the Supreme Court of Canada. On 18 October 1929, the Privy Council’s decision was announced: Canadian women were “qualified persons” and could be appointed to the Senate. The ramifications of this judgement affected all of the British Empire (today’s Commonwealth); significantly, the BNA Act was acknowledged as a living document that took into account modern human rights, rather than maintaining historic prejudices. As a result, the first Canadian female senator, Cairine Wilson, was sworn in on 15 February 1930.
The 90th anniversary of this victory for women’s rights is cause for celebration. Remember, Albertan women won this recognition of the fundamental equality of Canadians, regardless of gender. Use this anniversary as inspiration to call for greater equality for all people, in all aspects of society. In these times of increasing intolerance of differences, draw hope from this historic judgement, and show that Albertans can still be at the forefront of positive change that respects the human rights of all people.
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This article was originally printed in The Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.