The Persons Case was the term that, over time, came to describe a seminal moment in the fight for gender equality in Canada. In Edwards v. Canada (AG) [1929,] the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council held that women were allowed to sit in the Canadian Senate. That case turned on – incredibly – the question of whether a woman was a “person.” The story began over a decade earlier, with a dispute over prominent Alberta feminist Emily Murphy’s eligibility to preside as a judge, challenged in 1916 on the grounds that women were not “persons” under the 1867 British North America Act. Although the Alberta Supreme Court ruled in her favour, then-Prime Minister Robert Borden used a similar justification a year later to reject Murphy’s bid to sit in the Senate.
This spurred Murphy to join with four other Alberta women – known as the Famous Five – and petition the government to refer the question to the Supreme Court. The court ruled in 1928 that women were indeed not “qualified persons” as specified in the BNA Act and ineligible to sit in the Senate (a common misconception is that they ruled women weren’t “persons” at all.) As the Supreme Court was then not Canada’s final arbiter, the case was appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. It overturned the ruling, with Lord Chancellor Viscount Sankey proclaiming that “[t]he exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours.”
Today, the Persons Case is remembered as a landmark victory for Canadian women and October 18 (the date of the ruling) is celebrated as “Persons Day.” Although Murphy was never appointed to the Senate, Cairine Wilson became Canada’s first female Senator in 1930. The Famous Five have been honored with a statue on Parliament Hill, depicted on the fifty dollar bill and named honourary Senators. While it seems incredible that over a century ago women were not considered persons under the law, more incredible still is that the Persons Case was not the end of the battle for Canadian women – most notably Indigenous women and women of colour – who continue to face significant barriers to full participation in society.
Image Source: Canadian Museum of History