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October 18th is Persons Day in Canada

It marks the day in 1929 when the historic decision to include women in the legal definition of “persons” was handed down by Canada’s highest court of appeal. This gave some women the right to be appointed to the Senate of Canada and paved the way for women's increased participation in public and political life. Though this decision did not include all women, such as Indigenous women and women of Asian heritage and descent, it did mark critical progress in the advancement of gender equality in Canada.

On October 18, 1929, a landmark legal decision for Canadian women was made when women were legally recognized as “persons” under British common law. The decision was made necessary because The British North America Act, which governed Canada at the time, used the word “persons” when it referred to more than one person and the word “he” when it referred to one person. Those who wanted to keep women from being appointed as judges and senators claimed that women weren’t eligible for these positions because they weren’t recognized as persons under the law.

Five Canadian women disputed this claim. These “Famous Five” women first went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which decided the word “persons” did not include women. Undaunted, they took the case to the Privy Council of Great Britain, which, in those days, was Canada’s highest court. The Privy Council ruled “that the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours”.

Unveiling of a plaque commemorating the Famous Five, June 11, 1938. (Front row, L–R): Muir Edwards, daughter-in-law of Henrietta Muir Edwards; J. C. Kenwood, daughter of Judge Emily Murphy; Mackenzie King; Nellie McClung. (Rear row, L–R): Senators Iva Campbell Fallis, Cairine Wilson.


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