The Persons Case

A significant part of the story of Canada in the 20th century has involved the struggle for rights and fair treatment for such diverse groups as women, workers, aboriginals, gays, immigrants and the poor.

July 1 1999

The Persons Case

A significant part of the story of Canada in the 20th century has involved the struggle for rights and fair treatment for such diverse groups as women, workers, aboriginals, gays, immigrants and the poor.

July 1 1999

The Persons Case



A significant part of the story of Canada in the 20th century has involved the struggle for rights and fair treatment for such diverse groups as women, workers, aboriginals, gays, immigrants and the poor.

The greatest successes of the early women's movement in Canada came from the West. In 1916, Alberta writer Emily Murphy became the first woman police magistrate in the British Empire. The same year, Manitoba was the first province where women could vote; Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia (along with Ontario) followed suit almost immediately. The first women to enter provincial cabinets were in British Columbia and Alberta. All of the women who won seats in provincial legislatures before 1940 were from the Prairies and British Columbia.

Five Alberta women pushed womens rights further. Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney and Murphy were animated by the federal government’s refusal after the First World War to appoint even one woman senator on the grounds that the Constitution mentioned simply “qualified persons,” and did not stipulate that both genders could be included in the upper house.

The “Famous Five,” as they were to become,

appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which unanimously declared that Canadian women were not “persons” in the office-holding sense, either in the eyes of tradition or the Constitution. But the Supreme Court was not then supreme. In 1929, the Alberta women carried their case to the judicial committee of the Privy Council at Westminster, which then had the final say in such matters. Those jurists sided with the Famous Five, saying that the exclusion of women from all public offices was “a relic of days more barbarous than ours.”

In 1930, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s choice as the first woman senator was Cairine Wilson from Ottawa, who had three qualifications. She was, King

said, bilingual, a Liberal and “a lady.” After all, women like Murphy were, he wrote in his diary, “a little too masculine and probably a bit too sensational.” Wilson compiled a solid record in the Senate, and was a prominent opponent of anti-Semitism, but she was valued by commentators chiefly for her motherliness. They called her the “Betty Crocker of the Senate.”

Mary McCutcheon of Welland, Ont., was one of the Macleans readers who suggested the Persons Case as one of the pivotal events of the century. “The Five became an inspiration and they still are,” she says. Women were finally in politics without reservation.

Women were finally persons in law as well as in every other sense.

But despite the judicial committee’s decision, progress on the political front was slow. For many years, few women candidates won seats at the federal and provincial levels. Women, it was discovered, did not automatically vote for other women, as feminists assumed they would. The only female member of Parliament from 1921 (the first national election in which all women could vote) to 1935 was Agnes Macphail, who was treated abominably by male MPs and dismissed as an unmarried frump by the press, which played up her unglamorous clothes and appearance. Macphail said she was made to feel like a bear in a cage, a freak. In the late 1920s, Anne Anderson Perry wrote in Macleans that women were all dressed up with the vote but had found “nowhere to go.” They were divided in their goals, caught between old and new concepts of their roles in society. Perry wondered if women’s suffrage had fizzled.

Almost three-quarters of a century later, we like to think much has changed. But try telling that to the women politicians of the late 1990s who still find themselves forced to operate under very different rules from the men.

Winnipeg exploded on ‘Bloody Saturday’

Canada was beset by problems at the end of the Great War of 1914-1918. More than a half-million veterans, many of them wounded in body and mind, had to be reintegrated into society. The galloping inflation of wartime had to be checked, and divisions between Frenchand English-speaking Canadians, caused by conscription, had to be repaired. Above all, in a world agog at the Russian Revolution that had toppled the czar in 1917, strife between labour and capital had to be moderated.

For Canadians, the climactic batde between business and workers was fought in Winnipeg in the late spring of 1919. The immediate issue in Winnipeg revolved around a strike by metal and construction workers for union recognition and higher wages. Frustrated in their efforts, the strikers called for a general strike on May 15, and within days every union local in the city was off the job. At least 20,000 non-union workers supported the general strike, as did many returned soldiers.

Winnipeg’s Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, composed of business and industrial leaders, believed that it was fighting for Canada and the Canadian way of life. The federal government was equally adamant in its opposition to the strike; unrest, even revolution was in the air in Canada in 1919, and a “red scare” gripped the land. Immigrants, especially, were suspect. The army was placed on standby.

The pretext for federal intervention was, oddly, milk and bread. So that people could get the basic necessities,

the committee of workers directing the strike declared that it would permit deliveries of essentials. To the government, this was a challenge. Who was running the city: strikers or elected representatives? In Ottawa, the minister of the interior, Arthur Meighen, ordered army and police reinforcements.

On June 21, Winnipeg exploded. Off the job for five weeks, the strikers were out of money and patience. They burned a streetcar, the Mounted Police charged the crowd, and when a Mountie fell off his horse and was beaten, they fired at the strikers. One demonstrator died at once, another soon after, soldiers with machine-guns moved in, and “Bloody Saturday” broke the Winnipeg General Strike. On June 26, the strike committee capitulated in return for the promise of a royal commission into the strike’s causes.

The federal government took its revenge and deported foreign-born strike leaders. Meighen, his toughness hailed by his cabinet and caucus and by businessmen, became prime minister in 1920. But the real winner was Mackenzie King, elected Liberal leader two months after Bloody Saturday. King was a labour expert, the author of a book on relations between labour and capital, and the man who seemed exactly right for the times. King won the 1921 election, defeating Meighen, and he ruled for most of the next 27 years. For its part, organized labour, cowed by the fierce government response to the General Strike, never again mounted a serious challenge to capitalist Canada.

How Canada tried to bar ‘the yellow peril’

Canadians like to think of themselves as a tolerant people. Multiculturalism is the law of the land, and Canadians have welcomed waves of immigrants in recent decades, including thousands of Hungarians after the 1956 anti-Communist revolt and now several thousand Kosovars, many of whom will undoubtedly choose to remain here.

But our tolerance is a relatively new development. In the early years of Confederation and for many years afterward, even while the government was actively recruiting all over Europe, popular sentiment was strong against Jewish, Central European and Italian immigrants. Blacks and Asians were especially unwanted. Canada, as a historian once said, was a nation of immigrants that didn’t want immigrants, and so it seemed to be.

Preachers, teachers and ordinary citizens all spoke casually of “Kikes” and “Wops” and “Chinks” and thought nothing of it. Todays attitudes are different, but the beliefs of an earlier day, however unpleasant to our ears, were no less fervently held than our own.

Chinese immigrants began arriving in Canada after the great California gold rush of the late 1840s, and within a few years substantial numbers were working in trades that serviced gold miners or as merchants. The greatest influx—17,007 between 1881 and 1884—came with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. There are no Chinese visible in the famous picture of the driving of the great railroad’s last spike, but there was said to be a dead Chinese for every foot of line in the Fraser River canyon. There was also betrayal: the Chinese labourers thought they were to be provided transportation back to China, but the railway and provincial and federal governments refused to accept any responsibility. A large number of men had to scramble to survive as best they could. Those who did soon wanted their wives to join them, and the pressures for more immigration aroused xenophobia among white Canadians.

The pressure to stop the flow of immigrants led the federal government to put a head tax of $50 in place in 1885. Few Chinese could enter Canada unless they paid $50, a large sum in that day; and equivalent to $800 today. Other discriminatory measures followed, including in 1895 the exclusion of Chinese from voting, despite (or because of) the fact that they constituted more than 10 per cent of British Columbia’s population. But the Chinese kept coming, the protests against “the yellow peril” increased, and in 1903, after a royal commission pronounced Asians “obnoxious to a free community,” Ottawa increased the head tax to $500. In 1923, on what Canadian-Chinese refer to as “humiliation day,” the Asiatic Exclusion League and other white supremacists, persuaded Ottawa to bar all Chinese immigration. Then in 1931, the federal government put the icing on the cake of humiliation by effectively denying resident Chinese the right to apply for Canadian citizenship.

This blatant discrimination began to ease with the Second World War. China was an ally, and ChineseCanadians served in the Canadian military. Moreover, the revelations of Nazi genocide and Japanese atrocities made racism much less fashionable or acceptable than it had been. In 1947, Chinese immigration resumed and Ottawa offered citizenship to those who had been residents for more than five years. Since then, the ChineseCanadian community has expanded and prospered, producing doctors and scientists, architects and developers, and municipal, provincial and federal politicians.

Like the exclusion of Jews fleeing from Hitler in the 1930s and the relocation and mistreatment of Japanese-

Canadians during the Second World War, memories of the head tax linger to shame the country and successive governments. Efforts to secure redress for Canadians of Chinese origin have been going on for more than a decade. Governments have made and broken promises, and the Chrétien administration’s policy, as stated in 1994, is “to use limited government resources to create a more equitable society today and a better future for generations to come.” In other words, it would be too expensive to make amends to the Chinese and other minorities that have grievances. There would be no looking back, no redress. The head tax remains an ugly scar on the history of a supposedly tolerant, equitable nation.