OTD: Louise McKinney dies at age 62

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

McKinney was born in Frankville, Ont., in 1868. After graduating in Ottawa, where she trained to be a teacher, she taught at school’s around the province for seven years. McKinney then moved to North Dakota, where she continued teaching, married James McKinney and began working with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

A champion of suffrage, McKinney believed once women had the vote, legislation could “eliminate many of the evils that WCTU campaigned against,” according to a Post Office Department press release from 1981.

In 1917, McKinney became the first female member of a British Commonwealth legislature. As a member of the legislative assembly, she worked to strengthen prohibition and improve conditions for immigrants and women.

After her defeat in the 1921 election, she continued working for the WCTU, took part in the creation of the United Church of Canada and initiated the “Persons Case” along with four other Alberta feminists.

THE PERSONS CASE

The Famous Five, as they became known (and four of who have been commemorated on Canadian stamps), they initiated the Persons Case in 1927 by asking the federal government to refer two questions to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The women posed these questions: “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 “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, which related 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 – McKinney, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung 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 eventually 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 to adapt to ever-changing social circumstances.

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.”

1981 MCKINNEY STAMP

In March 1981, Canada’s Post Office Department, which became a Crown corporation known as Canada Post about half a year later, featured McKinney on a 17-cent stamp (Scott #880) as part of its “Feminists” issue.

Designed by Muriel Wood, the stamp is based on portraits of McKinney along with a vignette symbolic of her sphere of feminist activity, which includes the Legislative Buildings of Alberta.

The typography was done by Dennis Goddard.

Printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company, the stamp has general tagging along each side.

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