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The evolution of women’s political equality in Canada

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To begin with, one significant development in Canadian history that showcases how the evolution of women’s political equality has contributed to the evolving role of women is the Person’s Case deliberated in the late 1920s. The Person’s Case was a constitutional ruling that established the right of women to be appointed to the Senate.

The origin of the Person’s Case can be traced back to 1916 when Emily Murphy had been discounted as a “person” on her first day as a magistrate. Murphy had been appointed a magistrate to a newly opened women’s court in Edmonton, Alberta when a lawyer challenged Murphy’s case to judge given that she was a woman and women were not considered “persons” according to the British North America Act (BNA Act). The BNA Act of 1867, which is now known as the Constitution Act of 1867 — was the law that created and governed the Dominion of Canada.

According to the BNA Act, only “qualified persons” could be appointed to the Senate. However, The BNA Act did not specify whether “persons” included women or not. In 1867 “person” was legally understood to refer only to men.

Consequentially, the Canadian government had since then interpreted “persons” in the BNA Act as including men only. Emily Murphy and four other prominent women activists formed an alliance named the Famous Five and decided to challenge the BNA Act.

The famous five came together on August 27th, 1927 and signed a letter that was sent to the governor general. Subsequently, the case was taken to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1928, The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that women were not “persons” in accordance with the British North America Act, and therefore were ineligible for appointment to the Senate. The Alberta Five were disheartened but did not to give up and took the case to the Privy Council of England which was the final court of appeal. On October 18, 1929, The Privy Council of England reversed the Supreme Court’s decision and ruled that women were now considered “persons” under the law. Lord Sankey, who delivered the judgement on behalf of the Privy Council, also remarked that the “exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours […] and to those who ask why the word [persons] should include females, the obvious answer is why should it not”.

To summarize, the Persons Case is a historic development in Canadian history that showcases women’s fight for political equality in Canada. The legal recognition of women as “persons” meant that women could no longer be denied rights based on a narrow interpretation of the law and were now eligible to work for change in both the House of Commons and the Upper House.

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