The matter quickly became known as the "Persons" Case. It was debated on March 14, 1928, with the Supreme Court eventually ruling that women were not “qualified persons” as it related to Section 24 of the BNA act. One woman, Mary Ellen Smith from British Columbia, reacted to the news saying, “The iron dropped into the souls of women in Canada when we heard that it took a man to decree that his mother was not a person.”
The Famous Five, however, were not daunted. At the time, there was one authority even higher than the Supreme Court of Canada: The Privy Council in England. So they petitioned the Privy Council to rule on the matter. On October 18, 1929, Lord Sankey arrived to a packed courtroom in London to read the Privy Council’s judgement. To the relief and joy of the Famous Five and women across Canada, the Privy Council said that yes, women were indeed persons and could become Senators.
Sankey took things one step further, saying, “The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours.” This had reverberations throughout the British Empire (later the Commonwealth), for it clearly asserted that anti-suffragists could no longer suppress women’s rights through clever legal arguments and prejudiced traditions.
Nellie McClung (National Archives of Canada, PA-30212)
Women were not always considered "persons" in the legal sense of the term. To clarify the definition of the term, women appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and as a result, obtained rights similar to those of men.
The concept of "woman" has changed a number of times over the past several decades. Although women won the right to vote in several Canadian provinces, that status of women remains to be defined. The legal recognition of women as persons with rights was not obtained at the same time as the suffragette movement. Up until 1929, the legal term for person did not apply to women according to the Canadian Constitution.
SUMMARY OF THE CONFLICT
While women were granted the right to vote in most Canadian provinces, lobby groups seeking to improve the status of women on a social, economic, legal and even political level, continued to argue their case. Indeed, women were not legally recognized as "persons." Furthermore, when women married, they lost all of their rights. It was the "Famous 5" (Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Nellie McClung) who contested the legal interpretation of the word "person" before the Supreme Court of Canada in 1927. In its ruling, the Canadian Court stipulated that the term "person" did not apply to women, alleging that when the British North America Act was signed, jurisprudence did not consider women as "qualified persons." If the Constitution had included women in this definition, it would have been duly noted. The Famous 5 appealed the ruling before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of London, which reversed the verdict of the Supreme Court of Canada. The Privy Council stipulated that the term "person" was ambiguous and that if Parliament had wanted to exclude women from the term "person," it should have said so. And so it came to pass that in 1929, women acquired the right to exercise official functions, to attend university, and to practice a liberal trade.
According to the Gage Canadian Dictionary, a person is 1. a man, woman or child, human being. 2. A human being (...) recognized by the law as capable of having legal rights and duties.
Set of laws adopted by a country which form the basis of government and justice, and which determine the relations between those governing and those being governed.
British North America Act (BNAA)
The British-North America Act is one of the main parts of the Canadian Constitution signed in 1867 and subsequently revised and updated in 1982. Essentially, it details the distribution of the powers of the federal regime and outlines federal and provincial policies.
Legal source which refers to previous court rulings and is used to establish legal decisions.
Ruling handed down on a particular subject.
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