The British North America Act (BNA) of 1867 defined the powers and responsibilities of the provinces and the federal government in Canada. In the Act, the word “he” referred to one person, and the word “persons” referred to more than one person. By deduction, many argued that the “persons” is applied only to men, and only them could be appointed to the Senate of Canada, thus preventing women from becoming involved with politics or state affairs.
In 1927, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edward, and Irene Parlby, five activists from Alberta who became known as the Famous Five, challenged the Supreme Court of Canada with the question – does the word Persons in the BNA include women? The Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General) case, commonly called The Persons Case, was deliberated for five weeks before ruling that Persons does not include women. The famous five appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England, the highest level of court appeal, and on October 18th, 1929, the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain declared that the word “persons” in the BNA does include women and therefore, women are qualified to serve in the Senate.
Despite its significant impact on women’s status and gender equality in Canada, this decision excluded many women, including Indigenous women and women of Asian descent.
Person Day is celebrated annually in Canada on October 18th, commemorating the historic decision that allowed women to become senators and honoring the Famous Five, their determination, and bravery. It resembles American Women’s Equality Day, celebrated annually on August 26th, the day the 19th amendment was ratified officially to the US Constitution, and the American women got their voting right.
It is also a day to honor those who have fought for equal rights and point out the work that still needs to happen to ensure everyone gets equal opportunities to succeed, regardless of gender or ethnicity.
Various special events are taking place to celebrate the date across Canada. Pink tea parties are taking place, and people visit the Famous Five statues:
- Women Are Persons! The Famous Five Monument
- Women Are Persons! Monument
- Nellie McClung and the Famous Five Statue in Winnipeg
Since 1979, the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case has held a special ceremony recognizing people who promote women’s equality.
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