Louise McKinney, 62, dies

On today’s date in 1931, Louise McKinney, a prominent women’s rights activist and the first woman legislator in all the British Empire, died in Claresholm, Alta., at the age of 62.

In 1981, Canada Post featured McKinney on this 17-cent stamp (Scott #880) as part of its Canadian Feminists issue. Printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company, the stamp has general tagging along each side.

McKinney was one of five prominent Alberta women – four of whom have been commemorated on Canadian postage stamps – that initiated the Persons Case in 1927 by asking the federal government to refer two questions to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Famous Five (or Valiant Five), as they’re known, posed these questions: “I. Is power vested in the Governor-General in Council of Canada, or the Parliament of Canada, or either of them, to appoint a female to the Senate of Canada?” and “II. Is it constitutionally possible for the Parliament of Canada under the provisions of the British North America Act, or otherwise, to make provision for the appointment of a female to the Senate of Canada?”

The minister of justice under former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King reviewed the women’s petition and recommended their questions be narrowed down from two to one, relating to the appointment of women to the Senate of Canada.

On Oct. 19, 1927, the cabinet submitted this question to the Supreme Court: “Does the word ‘Persons’ in section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?”

After the Supreme Court answered “in the negative”, the Famous Five – Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby – decided to appeal the decision to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the British Empire’s court of last resort.

The Persons Case, as it became known, established eligibility for Canadian women to be appointed senators. It also saw the beginning of the “living tree doctrine”, which says a constitution should be interpreted broadly and organically so as to adapt it to changing times.

On Oct. 29, 1929, the Lord Chancellor Viscount Sankey determined the meaning of “qualified persons” could be read broadly to include women, reversing the decision of the Supreme Court. He wrote the “exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours,” and “to those who ask why the word [person] should include females, the obvious answer is why should it not.”

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