October 18 is Person’s Day

In Canada, the British North America Act (BNA Act) of 1867 used the word “persons” when referring to more than one person and “he” when referring to one person. Many argued the Act implicitly stated that only a man could be a person, which prevented women from participating fully in politics or affairs of state. Governments also used the “persons” argument to keep women out of important positions, that only “qualified persons” could be appointed to the Senate of Canada meant that only men could be appointed.

In 1927, five women (a.k.a. the Famous Five), Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Henrietta Muir Edwards, asked the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the following question: does the word “person” in Section 24 of the BNA Act include female persons? After five weeks of debate, the Supreme Court decided that the word “person” did not include women. The Famous Five did not give up the fight and took their case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain in London, which was then Canada’s highest court of appeal.

On October 18, 1929, Lord Sankey, Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, announced the decision:

“The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. And to those who would ask why the word ‘person’ should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?”

The Famous Five not only won the right for women to serve in the Senate, but also helped pave the way for women to participate equally in all aspects of life in Canada.

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