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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Person's Day

Today is the 80th anniversary of a momentous decision affecting the lives of women in Canada, the decision by the British Privy Council in 1929 that women must be considered to be "persons" under the British North America Act and entitled to all the privileges of personhood, including the right to be appointed to the Senate.

We owe that political right to the efforts of five women, alternatively known as the "famous five", the "fearless five" and the "fearsome five". Those five were: Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Nellie McClung.

It was they who challenged the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada in 1928 that women would be considered to be persons for "pains and penalties" but not for "rights and privileges". It was a victory that was second only to the right of women to vote in 1918, a battle which they had been involved in a decade earlier.

Today we take these rights for granted, along with the right to seek office at all political levels. But we must forget that it is the individual and collective action of many women that has made these rights possible. That's why we need to recognize and celebrate the remarkable contributions of women in our midst.

Every year, the Governor General's Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case are given to Canadian women whose effectiveness and courage has advanced the cause of equality for girls and women in significant and substantial ways. And now, we have our own Person's Day Awards right here in London, thanks to Margaret Hoff, who came up with the idea, and the Women's Events Committee of London, who implemented it in partnership with Brescia college.

This afternoon about 150 women and men applauded as the Famous Five of London Ontario received their awards. They are:

Jane Bigelow, former Mayor of London Ontario
Sister Patricia McLean, Founder of The Circle Women’s Centre at Brescia University College
Winn Whitfield, Activist and Women’s Herstorian
Kem Murch, Feminist Filmmaker
Dr. Mary McKim, Psychiatrist, women’s mental health

These are all remarkable women who will leave a lasting legacy for women's equality, each in her own way. I am particularly grateful to the mentorship of Jane Bigelow who broke her own vow not to get involved in municipal politics again when she championed my candidacy for Board of Control in 2006, acting as my campaign chair and fundraiser. And perhaps I will be seen as part of another feminist "fearless five" consisting of Susan Eagle, Joni Baechler, Judy Bryant, Nancy Branscombe and myself. That is a legacy to work for!

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