Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Pubdate: October 19, 2004
Author: Deborah Yedlin (email@example.com)
To some, it's the Infamous Five
Not all the women who triumphed in the Persons Case deserve a place of honour on
our new $50 bill, says Calgary-based business columnist Deborah Yedlin
Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of the famous Persons Case, where Canadian
women were accorded equal status under the British North America Act and,
therefore, became eligible for appointment to the Senate.
One of the ways this watershed case in Canadian history is being celebrated is
through the inclusion of the five Alberta women who played a key role in this
achievement -- Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and
Henrietta Muir Edwards -- on the back of the new $50 bill.
But there's a fine irony at play on this $50 note officially unveiled in Calgary
last week by Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge -- because the bill also
includes the following excerpt from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."
The thing is, not everyone in the Famous Five held those noble perspectives
about equality, dignity and rights.
Though these women were clearly pioneers of the feminist movement -- besides the
Persons Case, they also were instrumental in establishing the Alberta Dower Act
in 1917 that granted women property rights in marriage -- at least three of them
held views that can only be described as xenophobic and racist.
Emily Murphy, writing under the pen name of Janey Canuck and regularly appearing
in Maclean's and other publications, attacked Chinese immigrants, American
blacks, Jews and other Eastern Europeans who had chosen Alberta as their home.
She wrote: "One becomes especially disquieted -- almost terrified -- in the face
of these things for it sometimes seems as if the white race lacks both the
physical and moral stamina to protect itself, and that maybe the black and
yellow races may yet obtain the ascendancy."
Her book The Black Candle, written about Canada's drug laws in 1922, is a
vicious diatribe on Canada's growing Chinese community and the danger it posed
In other words, her brand of feminism extended to those who were just like her:
white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. She wasn't big on immigrants, especially
those of colour.
Not exactly what Mr. Dodge meant when he told the $250-a-plate Nation Builder's
dinner on Wednesday that "the $50 note celebrates the right of all people to
participate fully in society and to enjoy the benefits of living in a culture
that protects their individual rights and freedoms."
University of Alberta law professor Annalise Acorn has written: "Her [Murphy's]
work and writing reveal a woman with an unshakable sense of the entitlement of
her class to rule over those who were less competent and less worthy."
Mrs. Murphy, the first woman in the British Empire to be named a police
magistrate, along with Mrs. McClung, a novelist and legislator, and Mrs.
McKinney, the first woman sworn into the Alberta Legislature, left another
It was thanks to their efforts that the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act was
adopted in 1928. Mrs. Murphy and her pals toured the province making speeches
promoting the benefits of sterilizing fellow Albertans who didn't make the
The act stood until 1972; in that 44-year period, sterilizations of 4,725
Albertans deemed to be of a lower genetic makeup were authorized.
It would be easy to allow that Mrs. Murphy's views were reflective of her times
and to say that we should not necessarily ascribe today's values to a historical
But, as Lisa Silver, a lawyer and instructor at Mount Royal College currently
teaching a course on human rights, says: "Just because this line of reasoning
puts it in historical context, it doesn't justify it. If that was the case, we
could rationalize slavery in the United States or the Nazi movement in Germany
in the same way."
The decision to include in the banknote the Famous Five, according to Bank of
Canada spokesman Geoffrey King, was based on their work as a group to champion
the rights of women in Canada and made after compiling the results of focus
groups in which 4,000 people participated across the country.
"We were aware of the controversy that surrounds these people, but we are here
to honour their accomplishments as a group," he said.
Famous 5 Foundation founder Frances Wright acknowledges the difficulty in
reconciling the distasteful views with the group's accomplishments, but remains
convinced that it was important for them to be recognized as "female nation
builders" and says that their "flaws could be dealt with afterwards."
Tell that to the people in Alberta who live today with the after-effects of a
sterilization procedure foisted on them "not based on hatred" but as "a neutral
scientific solution to a problem," as the Famous 5 website would want people to
Or challenge the results of a recent study completed by Daniel Lai at the
University of Calgary showing that more than 50 per cent of the city's
42,000-strong Chinese community have experienced some form of racism, or
convince members of Jewish and Muslim communities across this country where hate
crimes are on the rise that the racism evident in Mrs. Murphy's writings can be
explained away because it was "the time" she lived in.
These five women were clearly pioneers of the feminist movement and should be
recognized for their accomplishments. Their success with the Persons Case lives
on, with 33 women currently appointed to the 308-member Senate. Two huge bronze
statues honour the Famous Five in Calgary and Ottawa. But to put them on the
back of a banknote that passes through our multicultural society is one step too
far. It legitimizes racism and xenophobia, and ultimately taints the bill.