It has been more than one hundred years since women could vote in Canada’s federal elections; 1918 to be precise. Women in Manitoba had been voting for two years before the federal nod. I don’t recall learning much about suffrage or about The Famous Five in Social Studies lessons in elementary school, but I am well familiar with these five women now: Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy, and Irene Parlby. They joined forces to advocate for women and children, leading by example. They broke trail for the rest of us to follow. They challenged the federal government to allow women to be senators and to be eligible to take a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada.
So, in 1928, the federal government posed the question to the Supreme Court of Canada – “Does the word Persons in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867 include female persons?” The unanimous response was “nay”. It became the “Persons’ Case”, the Famous Five pushing to have the case heard by The Privy Council of Great Britain. The reply was read on October 18, 1929 – “Women were indeed persons”. Who knew?
The original 1689 English Bill of Rights used the term “person”, not man, so who would have thought two X chromosomes rendered a woman an unperson. In elections in Lower Canada in 1792, anyone over 21 who owned property and not convicted of a criminal offence could vote. The kicker – women couldn’t own land. The Imperial Reform Act of 1832 restricted “persons” to be men in the United Kingdom, to prevent any doubt as to who a real person was, and this spilled out to British North America. In 1836, statutes passed that disqualified women from the Prince Edward Island Legislature, likewise in the Province of Canada and Nova Scotia. New Brunswick denied women the vote in 1843 as did the Province of Canada in 1849.
We watched outrage swell into the streets worldwide over the election results of 2016 which saw a buffoon take the chair in the highest office of the United States despite 26 women having accused him of sexual misconduct. That same year I wrote a piece about Mona Parsons for the anthology Brought to Light: More Stories of Forgotten Women. Mona grew up in Wolfville, Nova Scotia close to where I live. I often passed by her grave, marked by a large white monument. After a successful stage career, Mona married Willem Leonhardt and moved with him to Holland. They became members of the Dutch resistance in Nazi occupied Holland, helping downed British airmen get safely back to England. They were caught and tried by the Nazis, Mona sentenced to death in 1941, later appealed to life in prison. Mona escaped the prison in 1945, walking barefoot from Germany to a small Dutch town. Her husband died in 1956 of his compromised health due to prison conditions. Mona was denied anything from his substantial estate. She returned to Canada, married General Harry Foster, a childhood friend, in 1959. He died of cancer in 1964. Her grave marker pays tribute to her parents on one face, to her brother Ross Parsons having introduced her to Willem on another face, to her brother Henry Gwynn Parsons on a third face for having donated his body to medical science, and her name on the fourth side, remembered for having married General Harry Foster, not remembered for risking her life to fight the Nazi occupation, but remembered for marrying someone. Nova Scotia women erected a life-size sculpture in Wolfville in 2017, paying tribute to her acting career, her creative self, and her selfless courage against the Nazis.
So, when I watch a Canadian news anchor unwillingly come to the end of a solid career in broadcasting, after taking her place at the CTV desk following the retirement of grey-haired 77-year-old Lloyd Robertson in 2011, I can’t help but wince. Lisa LaFlamme was at the top of her game at age 58, with a magnificent head of grey hair that adorned her considerable intellect. I am not a fan of Bell Media on any level, but this latest move is an act of madness. Who do they think is watching the news? How did Michael Melling, senior CTV News executive, feel justified in demanding to know “who had approved” LaFlamme’s choice to let her natural hair colour seize the day, as if her head belonged to CTV? Why are women still held to a different set of rules all these many years later after finally qualifying as real persons?
My antidote? Rebecca Solnit. She is an extraordinary writer having written 20 books on feminism and other important issues. Men Explain Things To Me, a collection of essays written in 2014, is on my desk. Excuse me while I grab it and reclaim my sanity.