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Governor General of Canada / Gouverneur général du Canadaa




Speech on the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Women are Persons! Monument

Calgary, Alberta
Monday, October 18, 1999

We are here today because of five women of exceptional character, integrity, and vision – women who brought justice and equality to our country. The Women Are Persons! monument we are unveiling today is a symbol that speaks to all women, and indeed to all Canadians, because promoting gender equality is not only a women's issue, it is a human issue. It is a matter of human dignity and not only fundamental justice, but natural justice.

Seventy years ago, this "persons case" rattled the Canadian establishment – or, shall I say, the Canadian male establishment. It was a terrific and bold challenge to a conventional order, the kind of order that says:  we've always done it this way, what is your problem, we can do things like this, you can get some little things going, keep your hats on, drink your tea, don't worry about it, we'll take care of you.

But the Privy Council's recognition of Canadian women as persons was not only a victory for the women of the day, it was a victory for all subsequent generations of Canadians. And it was only one milestone on the long road to making women and men true equals in our society.

None of the five went to Britain; they let their case be defended for them by Mr. Rowell from Canada. He said in his case, in his argument which allowed women to be persons, the British North America Act planted in Canada a living tree, capable of growth and expansion. And I want to say today that all the women were remarkable women, remarkable women for their time, and in doing what they did – and particularly Emily Murphy for leading the charge – were right out of their time. They thought of things, and thought of things down the road, that we hadn't thought of yet.

But they were also women and human beings, who were of their time and perhaps had flaws like other people do. Some flaws of vision, some flaws of social opinions, some flaws of not understanding perhaps where society was going and what it meant, or perhaps ideas of what our society could be and grow into, like that living tree. But I know firmly that Emily Murphy would have been thrilled today to see that there was not only a woman Senator – and dozens of them – but a Chinese woman Senator and a Chinese Governor General.

These Famous Five have made their mark, and we care about them because they were here and in Calgary, which is the most wonderful city. And since there are so many of you here, I want to say how dear this place is to our hearts, and how much we enjoy coming here and being with you. And that's why we wanted to be here on our very first provincial visit. We are going to see all the other provinces and territories, but this is our first provincial visit. And if even if I haven't gotten any closer to the Rockies than the eighth floor of the Palliser Hotel, I really love this place.

There have been many women along the way who have cleared things – and perhaps even men. In the sixth century, some of you might remember, there was a great debate, and it was discovered that women had souls. That was a great help. Yes, it's a beginning. Thirteen hundred years later they became people. In 1897, 100 years ago, Clara Brett-Martin – and there's a building named after her on Bay Street in Toronto now – was admitted to the bar as Canada's first female lawyer; 1976, six women were ordained as Anglican priests; 1997, Mary McLaren became the first woman as Usher of the Black Rod – up to that point known as Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. That is, until she took the job. She's now just Black Rod.

Unfortunately, we have not yet reached, though, the end of that journey. There are many firsts yet to come, let's not forget that.  And they will be fraught with tension, they will be fraught with criticism, there will be personal attack. But they must always hold in their minds what Emily Murphy said: when I think about whether I'm going to fight or not, I fight.

This monument here in Calgary is the first in our country to honour the role of women as nation-builders, and I know that it's not going to be the last. It's going to be filled, always, with women who inspire us.

The women who will inspire us to continue may be very young today -- maybe the same age as Shawna, our honorary guest – but they will take up the fight against the status quo. And we must always fight against the status quo; otherwise, progress will not be made in creating a new, renewed Canada. This is very important, and it touches my heart to see that an increasing number of women are becoming leaders in every field in this country.

Emily Murphy said that we want women leaders today as never before, women who are not afraid to be called names, who are willing to go out and fight. I think women can save civilization. Those words were true when she said them in 1931, and they're still true today. This morning I had the pleasure of presenting the annual Governor General's Awards in Commemoration of the Person's Case to five individuals who have laboured so hard to improve the status of women in communities across this country. And they did it because they are what they are. They are what made them, what influences made them, and they have done it in the most exciting and imaginative ways possible.

And it's particularly fitting that this year's western recipient is somebody familiar to us all, and to all of you, the founding Chair of the Famous Five Foundation, Dr. Maria Eriksen.

I want also to thank everyone who worked so hard in making this unveiling possible, especially the monument's artist, Barbara Patterson, who has created – as you'll see when it's unveiled, or you may have seen it in the lobby of the Palliser already – an inspired vision of the five in a state of 1929-ness: their hats, their teacups, the tea table, a vision of them in a state of triumph, excitement, joy, but particularly the hats. And I'm so glad that Marcia McClung, descendant of Nellie and a great friend and associate for many, many years, is here today.

As you probably already know, and as Senator Fairbairn was saying, an identical sculpture will be unveiled on Parliament Hill next year. This will be the first statue of women, of female Canadian citizens, on the Hill. I believe it is high time for this to happen, and for Canadian women to take their place of honour next to monarchs, prime ministers and the "Fathers" of Confederation.

I hope that young women from coast to coast are going to visit Calgary and gaze upon this sculpture with pride, with wonder, and with a little bewilderment – pride at the perseverance, the solidarity, and the dedication of these special women; wonder at the strength of their individual characters; and bewilderment that there was ever a time in this country that women were not considered persons. And I hope it will encourage everyone who sees it to continue the journey that the Famous Five were committed to, to ensure that all women one day will truly be treated as equal persons in our society.

Emily Murphy said that while any woman is degraded or downgraded in our society, no woman should feel comfortable. She also said – and this is the optimistic part, I believe – that never was a country better adapted to produce a great race of women than this Canada of ours, nor a race of women better adapted to make a great country.

Thank you.

Updated: 2005-03-31
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