All About Persons Day

Today is Persons Day, which marks the historic 1929 decision by Canada’s highest court of appeal to include women in the legal definition of “persons.”

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Written By

Heritage Park Team


News Letters, Stories

Date Posted

October 18, 2023

About the Persons Case

In 1916, respected suffragist Emily Murphy became Canada’s first woman judge. In reaction, calls for Murphy to be placed in the Canadian Senate grew, but her appointment was stalled due to unclear wording of Section 24 in the ‘British North America Act’. The act specified that only qualified ‘persons’ could be appointed to the Senate. The person’s qualifications were based on income, land ownership, age, and historically, but not specifically written in the act, their gender.

In 1927, Murphy decided to petition the Supreme Court of Canada for clarification. To do so she needed four other supporters to sign a petition letter. So, Emily invited prominent Alberta activists (Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby) to her house for tea. This group of women is now known as the ‘Famous 5’.

Upon receiving the letter, The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that when the ‘British North America Act’ was written in 1867, ‘person’ was legally a reference to men exclusively and should be interpreted as such in the 1920s. The Famous 5 appealed this decision to Canada’s then highest court, the Privy Council of England, who reversed the Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark ‘Persons Case’. The Privy Council declared that excluding women of any public office was a ‘relic’ of a bygone era, and the Canadian Senate was open to women for the first time.

Although we celebrate the historic achievement of the Persons Case, we are also aware of the more controversial history of the Famous 5. It’s important that all aspects of history are acknowledged, even when it’s hard to hear. You can learn more about the Famous 5 and their history with regards to the principles of Eugenics in our podcast.

Stories From the Park Podcast

***Content warning: Some of the topics covered in this episode may be difficult to listen to.*** In this episode of the podcast, Kesia and Dominic are joined By Dr. Erna Kurbegovic to talk about the controversial topic of Eugenics. While widely practiced as a form of science in the late 1800's and early 1900's, Eugenic principles are widely discredited now. We dive into the connections of the principles to the Famous 5 who, while social reformers and trailblazers in Canadian society, did employ a number of the principles of Eugenics into their social ideas.

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