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.