The Famous Five

Famous Five

Calgary has one more impressive feature that I want to post about, and that is its monument to the Famous Five.

No, I’m not talking about the child sleuths made famous by English children’s author, Enid Blyton. I’m talking about the five Alberta women who took the Canadian government to court when they were told their gender made them ineligible to sit as senators.

It all started when Emily Murphy, the first female magistrate in the British Empire, was recommended for a Senate seat in 1917. Prime Minister Robert Borden refused to appoint her, saying that he was prevented from doing so by the constitution. He was referring to Section 24 of the British North American Act, 1867, which states the following:

The Governor General shall … summon qualified Persons to the Senate; and, subject to the Provisions of this Act, every Person so summoned shall become and be a Member of the Senate and a Senator.”

Edwards, McKinney, and Murphy

“Qualified persons,” said the prime minster, referred only to men. He had a problem, though. Emily Murphy had popular support ― a lot of support. Half a million Canadians signed petitions and wrote letters. And Prime Minister Borden needed the vote of Canadian women to stay in office. So, over the next decade, four consecutive federal governments declared their support for Emily Murphy, but each insisted it was prevented from appointing her to the Senate because of the constitution.

After ten years of no progress, Murphy tried another tactic. The Supreme Court allowed any five citizens acting together to appeal for clarification on any point of the constitution. And so, in 1927, the following question was put to the Supreme Court of Canada:

Does the word ‘Persons’ in Section 24 of the British North American Act, 1867, include female persons?”

The court ruled no, after which the case became known as the Persons Case. The Famous Five then appealed to the British Privy Council (at that time the court of final appeal for Canadians) and the ruling was overturned on October 18, 1929. Canadian women were declared persons and declared eligible to sit as members of the Senate of Canada.

McClung and Parlby

History geek that I am, I was so pleased to come across the monument to the Famous Five in Calgary’s Olympic Park. The statues were dedicated on October 18, 1999 ― seventy years after the Famous Five won their case ― and a duplicate of the monument stands on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Why was it such a big deal that women be able to sit as senators, you ask (other than, you know, the obvious issue of equal rights)?

It’s because until 1968 there was no divorce law in either Quebec or Newfoundland. Residents of those two provinces had to request a private Act of Parliament to dissolve their marriages, a procedure that was usually handed off to the Senate. If the Senate was going to decide family law, women needed representation to ensure equal treatment with men.

Incidentally, I also learned through my research for this post that people were complaining already back in the 1920s about how useless the Senate was and arguing that its members should be elected, not appointed. And, yes, there were federal political parties calling for its abolition.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, n’est-ce pas?

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