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The 'Persons' Case

Today, with the equal rights of Canadian women ensured by the 1982 Constitution Act, it is difficult to remember that many basic rights were first won only seventy years ago.

Canadian women born before 1929 were generally considered to be "non-persons." Five governments stated that women were ineligible to be appointed to the Senate because they were not "persons." In fact, British Common Law stated they were

"persons in the matter of pains and penalties, but not in the matter of rights and privileges."

A group of Alberta women—Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Nellie McClung—worked together to try to improve attitudes towards and conditions for women and to change the interpretation of the Canadian constitution to ensure women could participate in all aspects of public life. They were known as the Famous 5.

In 1927, the Famous 5 persuaded Prime Minister MacKenzie King to ask the Canadian Supreme Court to clarify the word "persons" under the British North America Act of 1867. When the Canadian court rejected their argument on April 24, 1928, the Famous 5 persuaded the Government of Canada to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council. There, the Famous 5 won and on October 18, 1929, Canadian women were legally declared "persons" and eligible for appointment to the Senate.

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