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The Famous Five (Canada)

The Famous Five or The Valiant Five[1] (French: Célèbres cinq) were five Alberta women who asked the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the question, "Does the word 'Persons' in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?" in the case Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General).[2] The five women, Emily Murphy, Irene Marryat Parlby, Nellie Mooney McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards, created a petition to ask this question. They sought to have women legally considered persons so that women could be appointed to the Senate. The petition was filed on August 27, 1927,[3] and on 24 April 1928, Canada's Supreme Court summarized its unanimous decision that women are not such "persons".[2] The last line of the judgement reads, "Understood to mean 'Are women eligible for appointment to the Senate of Canada,' the question is answered in the negative." This judgement was overturned by the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on 18 October 1929. This case came to be known as the "Persons Case". Although Canadian women (white British/Canadian citizens) had the vote in many provinces and in federal elections by 1929, the case was part of a continent-wide drive for political equality, coming seven years after women's suffrage in the United States through the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and thus had important ramifications not just for women's rights but also because in ruling in favour of the appellants, the Privy Council engendered a radical change in the Canadian judicial approach to the Canadian constitution, an approach that has come to be known as the "living tree doctrine".

Statue in downtown Calgary of the Famous Five. An identical statue exists on Parliament Hill, Ottawa
Part of the Famous Five monument on Olympic Plaza in Calgary, Alberta, Canada


  • The Five 1
    • Emily Murphy 1.1
    • Irene Parlby 1.2
    • Nellie McClung 1.3
    • Louise McKinney 1.4
    • Henrietta Muir Edwards 1.5
  • Legacy 2
    • Honorary senators 2.1
    • Opinions on the Famous Five 2.2
    • Commemorations 2.3
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5

The Five

The famous five women were:

Emily Murphy

Emily Murphy stood out in the famous five, bringing them to a victory in 1929. Emily was appointed to the office of Magistrate of the Edmonton Juvenile Court in 1916 and later became the magistrate of the newly created Women's Court. At the time, no woman had held such a position and many men objected.[4]

During her career as a writer, Murphy used the pen name "Janey Canuck." In 1922, she wrote The Black Candle which detailed her beliefs on race and drug use in Canada and strongly influenced drug policy of the day. Murphy came from a privileged background in which white women were protected from many topics.[5] She has been denounced in Maclean's magazine as a bigot: Murphy might have believed that women were persons, but she wasn’t so sure about pretty much anyone who wasn’t as lily-white as her: Mexicans, Chinese, Greeks. Don’t even get her started on the “Negros.” She was a racist, [6] and criticised elsewhere. [7]

Irene Parlby

In 1916, Irene Parlby was elected as the first president of the United Farm Women of Alberta and in 1921, was elected to the Alberta legislature and received a cabinet post in the United Farmers of Alberta government, becoming the second woman in the British Empire to hold ministerial rank. She served as cabinet minister until the downfall of the government in 1935. Parlby worked with the Red Cross during World War I and later served on the Board of Governors of the University of Alberta.[4]

Nellie McClung

Nellie McClung's jobs in her lifetime included teacher, author, social worker and politician. In 1918, she was a member of the Dominion War Council and the only woman representative at the League of Nations. She represented Canada at the Ecumenical Council of the Methodist church in 1921 and was the first woman on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Board of the Governors.[4] In 1921, McClung was elected to the Alberta legislature as an MLA in Edmonton for the Liberal Party.[5] She served one term, not being re-elected in 1926. She was the most popular speaker of Political Equality of Manitoba, of which she was a member and held a leading role in the Mock Parliament held on January 29, 1914 which humorously discussed Votes for Men.[4]

Louise McKinney

Louise McKinney became one of the first two women elected to a legislature in the British Empire, and the first to take her seat. She was a founder of the United Church of Canada, and was the only woman to sign the Basis of Union.[4]

Henrietta Muir Edwards

Henrietta Muir Edwards, author and researcher on women's topics, held an influence within the National Council of Women[2] and held chairmanship of the Committee in Law in the National Council of Women for more than 35 years. She was also a Red Cross leader during the war years. Edwards was the secretary of the National Subcommittee which focused on thrift and economy in Canadian homes.[4]


Honorary senators

None of the five became senators; the first female senator was Quebecer Cairine Reay Wilson, appointed four months after the ruling. Nearly 80 years later, on 8 October 2009, the Senate voted to make the five the first "honorary senators".[8][9] The achievement of personhood for women had been a monumental change which gave more power to women.

Some might well question the overall significance of the decision, noting that by the 1920s the Senate of Canada was a largely powerless body. The more powerful House of Commons of Canada had elected its first female member (Agnes Macphail) in 1921, well before the Persons Case. However, the precedent did establish the principle that women could hold any political office in Canada. Moreover, the Five clearly did devote their energies to increasing women's participation on legislative bodies with greater power: three had been members of the Alberta legislature. The controversy surrounding the women has made commemoration difficult. The five women were activists in a variety of areas in their pursuit to better the conditions for women and children.

Unveiling of a plaque commemorating the Famous Five, 11 June 1938. (Front row, L–R): Muir Edwards, daughter-in-law of Henrietta Muir Edwards; J.C. Kenwood, daughter of Judge Emily Murphy; Mackenzie King; Nellie McClung. (Rear row, L–R): Senators Iva Campbell Fallis, Cairine Wilson

Opinions on the Famous Five

Opinions on the Famous Five vary considerably. Many laud them as trailblazers for women. Others are disturbed by the opinions of some of the women on other issues, such as non-white immigration and their successful campaigns to have eugenics legislation introduced in Canadian provinces. Emily Murphy was not shy with her opinions and her outspoken nature had a tendency to give her a negative reputation. She wrote letters of her opinions to police chiefs, government officials, social service agencies and judicial officials about the extent of drug traffic and possible cures. Nellie McClung was known as the most memorable and popular of the famous five. Her causes included women's right to vote, prohibition, women in the church and women in public life.[5] Henrietta Muir Edwards was described as “tenacious” with her work with prohibition.[4]

The five women were activists in a variety of areas in their pursuit to better the conditions for women and children. Emily Murphy dealt with single mothers and issues of child support, child welfare, and adoption by lobbying for women's rights. [10] Nellie McClung favoured free medical and dental treatment for school children as well as mothers' allowances and better property rights for women. She was open to divorce and birth control but opposed the sale and use of liquor. Louise McKinney believed strongly in the “evils of alcohol” and pushed to enact prohibition measures. She advocated excluding cigarettes from parcels sent to soldiers in WWI in 1917. She supported reasonable measures for social welfare and health as well as introducing bills intended to make prohibition more effective, to improve the lot of immigrants and bring better security to widows. She was responsible for the introduction of a motion which led to the Dower Act. Irene Parlby in her position as cabinet minister in Alberta pursued these goals expressed by McKinney. Henrietta Edwards worked with property law and sought to protect women and children.[5]


The Famous Five have been commemorated with individual and group plaques in the

  • The Famous Five from the National Archives of Canada
  • Supreme Court of Canada opinion in the "Persons Case" (from CanLII)
  • Judicial Committee of the Privy Council opinion in the "Persons Case" (PDF)
  • JCPC opinion (unofficial version from Canadian Human Rights Commission)
  • Canadian Encyclopedia entry
  • Famous 5 Foundation
  • The Famous 5 Monument video and essay in the Virtual Museum of Canada

External links

  1. ^ Kome, Penney (1985). Women of Influence: Canadian Women and Politics (1st ed.). Toronto: Doubleday Canada. pp. 31–32.  
  2. ^ a b c d Brennan, Brian (2001). Alberta Originals: Stories of Albertans Who Made a Difference. Fifth House. p. 14.  
  3. ^ Alberta History. 47-49. Historical Society of Alberta. 1999. Retrieved 2013-05-10. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h MacEwan, Grant (1975). ...and Mighty Women too: Stories of Notable Western Canadian Women. Western Producer Prairie Books.  
  5. ^ a b c d Millar, Nancy (1999). The Famous Five: Five Canadian Women and Their Fight to Become Persons. Western Heritage Centre.  
  6. ^ Petrou, Michael (28 October 2012). "Why does Canada insist on honouring a xenophobic fascist?".  
  7. ^ Haddow, Douglas (31 October 2012). "The Drug War in Your Passport". Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Retrieved 2013-05-10. 
  8. ^ Famous 5' named honorary senators"'".  
  9. ^ Senate of Canada. Hansard. 8 October 2009.
  10. ^ Sharpe, Robert J. (2007). The Persons Case: The Origins and Legacy of the Fight for Legal Personhood.  
  11. ^ "Alphabetical Park Listing". City of Edmonton. 14 May 2012. Retrieved 2012-05-14. 
  12. ^ "Should the new $50 bill show an Arctic research boat instead of the Famous Five?". CBC News ( 7 December 2011. Retrieved 2013-05-17. 
  13. ^ "About Us". Famous 5 Foundation. Retrieved 2013-05-17. 


See also

The achievement of personhood for women had been a monumental change which gave more power to women. To honor the Five and continue to involve women in leadership roles in Canada, Frances Wright and others established the non-profit Famous Five Foundation on 18 October 1996, the 70th anniversary of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council's decision.[13]

Along with Thérèse Casgrain, the Five were commemorated in the 2001 Journey Series of Canada's fifty-dollar bill.[2] In December 2011, the Bank of Canada announced that the Famous Five would not appear on the redesigned $50 Frontier Series banknote that it issued in 2012.[12]


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