Persons Day – October 18th

Persons Day this year falls on Tuesday, commemorating 82 years since women were made persons under the law following the Persons Case. LEAF, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, is holding its annual gala Persons Day breakfast in cities across Canada over a number of mornings (Ottawa’s was already held on Friday). There is still time to book your ticket. Last year 5,000 people across Canada attended the breakfast, with 800 in Toronto alone.

The Government of Canada’s Status of Women Canada website has additional information about the “Famous Five” and the Persons Case at (English) and (French).

As well, nominations are taken throughout the year for the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case. 2011 nominations closed in June, but nominations for 2012 can be made now. The 2011 Awards have not yet been announced, but the 2010 Awards are listed and there is also a link to past recipients dating back to 1979, the first year of the Awards.

The University Library at the University of Saskatchewan has more information about the Persons Case as part of their Herstory online exhibition at

For more information about LEAF visit their website at


  1. As part of the Alberta Eugenics Awareness Week, the Eugenics Archives (part of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada a.k.a. SSHRC) is holding a free brown bag lunch today called “The Famous Five, The Persons Case, and Eugenics” in Edmonton at the University of Alberta.

    For more information see: – this event is free and open to the public.

  2. Let’s remember that the IPC Law Lords’ Decision re Henrietta Muir Edwards et al Appeal of the SCC decision only applied to the specific section of the BNA Act re the Senate. What’s impressive is the was these older women used the legal system to achieve their Interpretion goal. A great help being Emily Ferguson/Mrs/Murphy being a member of a supportive old Ontario legal family.

  3. And that Liberal jurist/politician Newton Wesley Rowell, the founder of the firm that is now just McMillan, took the case to the Privy Council when the SCC had given it the back of their hand in [1928] SCR 276.

  4. No doubt it’s nice to have a legal rallying point for equality of the sexes, and the Persons Case makes a good one, if one does not look too carefully at it. Women had lots of legal rights before it was decided, notably the vote (in most of the country) and property rights. As Nellie M says above, the case turned on one provision in the BNA Act. The SCC used, in reading the provision, a very commonplace legal rule of interpretation: what did the people who enacted the legislation mean by the word in question. They came up with what was very likely the right answer.

    The Privy Council asked a better question and got a different (and better) answer.

    It is a good case for demonstrating that Constitutions cannot or at least should not be read uniquely through the lenses of the ‘founding fathers’. The ‘living tree’ doctrine is anathema in some quarters in the US, and there are those in Canada who don’t like it much either, at least when it produces a result that they don’t agree with. But some version of that doctrine is needed, or we will have to get very used to (a) injustices, as interpreted by the society we live in from time to time, and (b) more attempts to amend the Constitution to improve the wording and to avoid the consequences of judicial opinion as out of step with its times as the SCC was in 1928 (where no doubt it spoke for the values of a good portion of society, even then.)

  5. Many Canadians are skeptical about the significance of the many official “days” sprinkled throughout the year, but persons day has a great importance. Moreover, the Persons Case itself presents a good case study in social justice, one on which critics of so-called ‘judicial activism’ should reflect.

  6. One of the cases relied on by the Supreme Court in Reference re Meaning of Word “Persons” in s. 24 of the B.N.A. Act, [1928] S.C.R 276, the “Persons Case” when it was before the Supreme Court, was Chorlton v. Lings (1868), L.R. 4 C.P. 374. The matter came before the Court of Common Pleas, Bovill C.J., Willes, Byles & Keating JJ., as an appeal by a woman called Mary Abbott from the Revising Barrister’s refusal to put her on the list of electors for the borough of Manchester.

    The headnote to that case stated:

    The Representation of the People Act, 1867, s. 3, enacts that every “man” shall, in and after the year 1868, be entitled to be registered as a voter, and when registered to vote for a member or members to serve in Parliament for a borough who is qualified as follows, first, is of full age, and not subject to any legal incapacity.

    By Lord Brougham’s Act, s. 4, in all Acts words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females, unless the contrary is expressly provided:—

    Held, that women are subject to a legal incapacity from voting at the election of members of Parliament.

    Held, also, that the word “man” in the Representation of the People Act does not include women.

    The future Lord Coleridge and Dr. Pankhurst appeared for Mary Abbott.
    Mary Abbott was 21 years old. A Google search under this name to discover what might have become of Mary Abbott was inconclusive.
    It is interesting that Chorlton v. Lings is followed by Canadian courts when they have to decide what the word “expressly” means. In Walton v. Bank of Nova Scotia, 1964 CanLII 31, Schroeder J.A., giving the reasons for judgment of the Ontario Court of Appeal said:

    [26] I should like to add that Chorlton v. Lings (1868), L.R. 4 C.P. 374, is not to be taken as an authority supporting the appellant’s contention that the word “expressly” used in a statute should generally be construed as meaning “what is properly or necessarily implied by language”. The rule there laid down must be read in the light of the peculiar facts, for to have given the word “expressly” the meaning contended for in that case would have resulted in the extension of the franchise to women contrary to the usage which had prevailed in England for centuries.

    The 143rd anniversary of Mary Abbott’s case is three weeks today, 9 November, 2011.

  7. Ontario’s Legislation Act, 2006, now says this about the gender of words and the sex of those affected by the words: s. 68: “Gender-specific terms include both sexes and include corporations.” Section 47 says that the Act applies to all statutes and regulations “unless,
    (a) a contrary intention appears; or
    (b) its application would give to a term or provision a meaning that is inconsistent with the context.”

    However, s. 71 says this about binding the Crown: “No Act or regulation binds Her Majesty or affects Her Majesty’s rights or prerogatives unless it expressly states an intention to do so.” Despite that ‘expressly’, the law is very clear that the Crown may also be bound by ‘necessary implication’.

    One might be tempted to conclude that judges will include or exclude things depending on some other motives than the wording of the statute in front of them.

  8. I should have also mentioned the book The Persons Case: The Origins and Legacy of the Fight for Legal Personhood by Mr. Justice Robert Sharpe of the Court of Appeal for Ontario and Patricia McMahon, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. Published for the Osgoode Society by the University of Toronto Press.

    More info here on the Osgoode Society website:

    I like that they have a picture from the Famous Five statues on the cover.