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Here’s Why You Should Care About Persons Day
October 18, 2013
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(Photo: Richard Baer/Flickr)

Each year on October 18, Persons Day is celebrated in Canada. Sound a little... generic? It's anything but. It actually celebrates a turning point in the struggle for equal rights for women in this country. Here's the story.

Before 1929, two crucial words in the British North America Act, our original constitution, separated women from men before the law: “qualified persons.” Although the majority of Canadian women got the vote by 1919, they still couldn't be appointed to the Senate, because only "qualifed Persons" were fit for the role — and British common law tradition held that that didn't include women. It took a determined group of women known as the Famous Five to change things.

Leading the group was Emily Murphy, an Edmonton women's rights activist who was a popular candidate for the Senate, and who sought to figure out, once and for all, whether the BNA Act allowed her to sit there. Murphy, along with her co-activists Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby, persuaded the Federal government to ask the Supreme Court of Canada for clarity on the issue. The court ruled that, yes, women were indeed "persons," but no, they would not have been "qualified" in the eyes of the drafters of the BNA Act. But in those days, the Supreme Court wasn't the last word in Canada.

The Famous Five appealed the case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the highest court in the British Empire at the time. In a landmark ruling, which came to be known as the Persons decision, the committee overturned the Supreme Court and changed Canadian history:

The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours.... The word "person" as above mentioned may include members of both sexes, and to those who ask why the word should include females, the obvious answer is why should it not.

Although Murphy was not appointed to the Senate (the first woman would be Cairine Wilson, in 1930), the decision was a milestone for equal rights in Canada, and it inaugurated an approach to the constitution that recognized that its interpretation should change along with society. And that's why you should care about Persons Day.

Every year, five individuals are recognized for their advances toward the equality of women at the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case. This year’s recipients will be announced later this month.

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