‘Repurposing’ work of Canada’s Famous Five for modern times

Posted October 23, 2014

Written by Beth Lyons



This past Saturday, Canadians celebrated Persons Day, an annual commemoration of the 1929 Persons Case that was heard before the Committee of the Imperial Privy Council (Canada’s court of last resort at that time; the equivalent of our modern day Supreme Court) and resulted in the ruling that determined that women are indeed persons under the law.

On Monday, Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case were presented, with Moncton’s own Chantal Thanh Laplante receiving one for her years of feminist activism.

An integral part of the Persons Case is the story of the Famous Five – the five Canadian women who created and filed a petition with the Privy Council requesting an answer to the question of whether, under the British North America Act of 1867, Canadian women were “qualified persons” who could be appointed to Canada’s Senate, which lead to the larger question the question of whether women were considered persons.

The five women – Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby – are heralded as women’s rights pioneers in Canada and are memorialized in our collective memories and with monuments throughout the country.

What is often left out of the story of the Persons Case and the Famous Five is, of course, that not all women became persons in 1929. Women without property, indigenous women and racialized women, for instance, remained non-persons under the law. Some of the Famous Five held racist views and promoted eugenics.

How does a country celebrate a significant win for (some) women such as the Persons Case while also acknowledging the fact that many women were excluded from the rights gained through the case? How do we hold up certain members of the Famous Five for their progressive pursuits while neatly ignoring the distinctly un-progressive views on race they simultaneously shared and spoke of?

One way is to reimagine our celebration of the Persons Day with by explicitly including focus on the successes and struggles of the very people who were excluded from the gains of the Persons Case.

Last October, Dr. Lynn Gehl, an Aboriginal activist, published a blog post titled Persons Day: The Indigenous Famous Five Contingent. The post outlined the efforts of five Indigenous women – Mary Two-Axe Early, Jeanette Corbiere Lavell, Yvonne Bedard, Sandra Lovelace and Sharon Donna McIvor – to address sexism in Canada’s Indian Act.

The Indian Act passed in 1876 and is still in effect today. The Act outlines how Aboriginal reserves and bands may operate, how Canada interacts with reserves and bands, and also defines who is recognized as “Indian” in Canada. (I’m going to use the term Indian from here on in this column to refer to indigenous persons with recognized status through the Indian Act.)

The work of the Indigenous Famous Five has focused on the latter aspect of the Indian Act, specifically how it has affected indigenous women and children.

In 1951, the Indian Act laid out that Indian women who married non-Indian men lost their status as Indians in the eyes of the Canadian government, and therefore could not pass it on to their children. Not only was this an affront to the matrilineal traditions of many indigenous cultures, but resulted in the loss of land and community for many indigenous women and their children. Many critics understand the goal of this part of the Indian Act to be the reduction of the number of recognized Indians in Canada to lessen Canada’s treaty obligations and further assimilate (and colonize) the land’s indigenous peoples.

The above-mentioned indigenous women successfully challenged many aspects of sexism in the Indian Act. Dr. Gehl herself has taken up the work of addressing sexism that has emerged in the Act and its administration in the wake of progress wrought by the Indigenous Famous Five. Notably, she is challenging a provision that causes children born to Indian mothers but lacking the name of a father on a birth certificate to be declared non-Indian.

This Persons Day, LEAF, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund which works to make sure that Canadian courts respect gender equality as laid out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, chose to signal-boost the story of the Indigenous Famous Five.

LEAF issued a press release stating, “We at LEAF are acutely aware that the 1929 Persons Case only achieved personhood for a certain class of Canadian women with a certain amount of property and excluded Indigenous, and racialized women. However, one way to look at it is that those women with privilege cracked open the door for others to push through. We at LEAF believe that we can work together to crack the door open more widely and more completely to achieve full equality for all women and girls across Canada.”

The release went on to name the Indigenous Famous Five and support the ongoing work of Dr. Gehl.

This is a fantastic example of how celebrations of historic events of significance that are far from perfect, but still important, can evolve and be transformed into testaments to the very values that were sorely lacking in the actual event.

Beth Lyons, associate director of YWCA Moncton, writes about equality issues and social justice.

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