Persons Day

Persons Day


Reform movements attract support

The early 1900s in the Canadian west were turbulent and rapidly changing times. In Alberta, the population began to shift from a strictly rural to an increasing urban one. Men outnumbered women three to two. These situations combined to create a number of serious social problems, including alcohol abuse and prostitution.

In response, women began to organize and support organizations dedicated to 'cleaning up society.' They also began to seek a larger role in politics. In 1916, Alberta passed legislation granting women the right to vote.

The British North America Act (BNA Act) of 1867 set out the powers and responsibilities of the provinces and of the federal government. This federal Act used the word "persons" when it referred to more than one person and the word "he" when it referred to one person. Therefore, many argued, the Act was really saying that only a man could be a person, thus preventing women from participating fully in politics or affairs of state.

This situation was of concern to Canada's Emily Murphy, the first woman magistrate in the British Empire. Judge Murphy was the magistrate of a newly created Women's Court operating in Edmonton. On her first day, a defendant's lawyer challenged a ruling on the grounds that she was not a "person" and therefore not qualified to perform the duties of a magistrate.

Magistrate Alice Jamieson of Calgary found herself similarly challenged. In 1917 one of her rulings was appealed to the Alberta Supreme Court, which deemed there was no legal disqualification for holding public office based on sex.

At the same time, women's groups began pressuring the federal government to appoint a woman to the Senate. Despite the support of two consecutive prime ministers, no appointments materialized. Governments used the “persons” argument to keep women out of important positions, like the Senate. If the word “person” applied only to men, then the stipulation that only "qualified persons" could be appointed to the Senate of Canada meant that only men could be appointed.