The Enduring Spirit of the Famous 5
“No nation rises higher than its women”: Nellie McClung
The much-loved monument to the Famous Five located on Parliament Hill should not be seen as just a quaint reminder of a bygone era. The spirit of those five feisty women lives on and is recognized each October by the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case.
Remember that as recently as the 1920s, women were not recognized as “persons” under the existing laws of the time and as such were not considered qualified to sit in the Senate of Canada. Five women from Alberta fought back against this injustice and took their petition right to the Supreme Court of Canada where it was rejected in 1928. Refusing to be denied, these tireless nation-builders―Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby―then took their fight to the British Privy Council. Their request was granted in 1929. Not only were women officially recognized as “persons”, the Persons Case opened the door for constitutional reform in Canada and the Famous 5 became the only individuals ever to successful reform the Senate of Canada.
Each year on October 18, we celebrate Persons Day in Canada. And each year, in October the Governor General recognizes five modern day nation builders in the spirit of the Famous Five.
This year two of the recipients are from Ottawa. Constance Backhouse is an outstanding academic and legal historian from the University of Ottawa. Arguably Canada’s pre-eminent feminist historian, Professor Backhouse focuses her scholarly work on telling stories of women and other oppressed groups, exposing inequalities, promoting understanding and facilitating change. She has worked to strengthen laws addressing violence against women and helped generations of students to understand the roots of discrimination on the basis of race, gender and inequality.
Julie Lalonde is a graduate student at Carleton University where she studies the impact of poverty and isolation on elderly women. She is a youth recipient of the Governor General’s Award for her work to end sexual assault and sexual harassment. She developed and managed “Draw the Line”, the Province of Ontario’s anti-sexual violence public education campaign and her work in strengthening women’s equality in the National Capital Region exemplifies how young Canadians can be outstanding leaders in making their own communities safer and more equitable places.
The other winners are Susan Shriner, a community activist from Newfoundland who has highlighted women’s inequality as a root cause of violence against women; Nahanni Fontaine from Manitoba who has led the campaign for action on missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls; and Cherry Smiley from Vancouver, an emerging leader among Aboriginal women in Canada.
Famous 5 Ottawa will be honouring all five modern day nation builders with their annual Enbridge Luncheon on October 30, the day after the award ceremony at Rideau Hall. Our volunteer organization works hard to provide opportunities for women, especially young women, to consider a career in public life and dream about building a better nation. We continue to believe that women should be at the front of the room speaking and not at the back of the room organizing.
Famous 5 Ottawa was instrumental in persuading the Government in 2000 to place the Women Are Persons! Monument outside the Senate. Our Norton Rose Fulbright Mentorship Program provides young women with an opportunity to speak at important public events; the CGA-Canada Outreach program takes nation builders to local schools to inspire students with their stories of making Canada a better and more equitable place.
Ottawa residents should be proud that two women from our community are receiving Canada’s highest awards for women. Constantly contributing, always challenging the status quo, consistently exploring new legal challenges and working hard, they are making a better life for all Canadians in the spirit of the Famous Five.
Please visit www.famous5ottawa for more information.