October 18th, 2018 marks the 89th anniversary of the decision in the Persons Case. Officially known as Edwards v. A.G. of Canada, the Persons Case was a constitutional law case which ultimately established that women were considered persons under the law and had the right to be appointed to the Senate.
Section 24 of what was then known as the British North America Act stated that only “qualified persons” could be appointed to the Senate in Canada. This had long been interpreted by the Canadian government to include men only.
In 1927, a group of women (Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby) petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada to interpret whether or not the BNA Act precluded women from being appointed to the Senate. A decision was reached in 1928, with the Supreme Court ruling that women were not ‘qualified persons’ under the law.
The ‘Famous Five’, as they came to be known, appealed that ruling to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England which at the time was the last avenue for an appeal from the Supreme Court. On October 18, 1929, the JCPC overruled the Supreme Court of Canada, and determined that women were indeed persons and could be appointed to the Senate. In his decision, Lord Sankey wrote: “The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours.” In 1930, Cairine Wilson became the first women appointed to the Senate of Canada.