Globe and Mail
October 19, 2004

Deborah Yedlin

To some, it's the Infamous Five Not all the women who triumphed in the Persons Case deserve a place of honour on our new $50 bill, says Calgary-based business columnis

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of the famous Persons Case, where Canadian women were accorded equal status under the British North America Act and, therefore, became eligible for appointment to the Senate.

One of the ways this watershed case in Canadian history is being celebrated is through the inclusion of the five Alberta women who played a key role in this achievement -- Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards -- on the back of the new $50 bill.

But there's a fine irony at play on this $50 note officially unveiled in Calgary last week by Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge -- because the bill also includes the following excerpt from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." The thing is, not everyone in the Famous Five held those noble perspectives about equality, dignity and rights.

Though these women were clearly pioneers of the feminist movement -- besides the Persons Case, they also were instrumental in establishing the Alberta Dower Act in 1917 that granted women property rights in marriage -- at least three of them held views that can only be described as xenophobic and racist.

Emily Murphy, writing under the pen name of Janey Canuck and regularly appearing in Maclean's and other publications, attacked Chinese immigrants, American blacks, Jews and other Eastern Europeans who had chosen Alberta as their home.

She wrote: "One becomes especially disquieted -- almost terrified -- in the face of these things for it sometimes seems as if the white race lacks both the physical and moral stamina to protect itself, and that maybe the black and yellow races may yet obtain the ascendancy." Her book The Black Candle, written about Canada's drug laws in 1922, is a vicious diatribe on Canada's growing Chinese community and the danger it posed to society.

In other words, her brand of feminism extended to those who were just like her: white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. She wasn't big on immigrants, especially those of colour.

Not exactly what Mr. Dodge meant when he told the $250-a-plate Nation Builder's dinner on Wednesday that "the $50 note celebrates the right of all people to participate fully in society and to enjoy the benefits of living in a culture that protects their individual rights and freedoms." University of Alberta law professor Annalise Acorn has written: "Her [Murphy's] work and writing reveal a woman with an unshakable sense of the entitlement of her class to rule over those who were less competent and less worthy." Mrs. Murphy, the first woman in the British Empire to be named a police magistrate, along with Mrs. McClung, a novelist and legislator, and Mrs. McKinney, the first woman sworn into the Alberta Legislature, left another distasteful legacy.

It was thanks to their efforts that the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act was adopted in 1928. Mrs. Murphy and her pals toured the province making speeches promoting the benefits of sterilizing fellow Albertans who didn't make the grade.

The act stood until 1972; in that 44-year period, sterilizations of 4,725 Albertans deemed to be of a lower genetic makeup were authorized.

It would be easy to allow that Mrs. Murphy's views were reflective of her times and to say that we should not necessarily ascribe today's values to a historical context.

But, as Lisa Silver, a lawyer and instructor at Mount Royal College currently teaching a course on human rights, says: "Just because this line of reasoning puts it in historical context, it doesn't justify it. If that was the case, we could rationalize slavery in the United States or the Nazi movement in Germany in the same way." The decision to include in the banknote the Famous Five, according to Bank of Canada spokesman Geoffrey King, was based on their work as a group to champion the rights of women in Canada and made after compiling the results of focus groups in which 4,000 people participated across the country.

"We were aware of the controversy that surrounds these people, but we are here to honour their accomplishments as a group," he said.

Famous 5 Foundation founder Frances Wright acknowledges the difficulty in reconciling the distasteful views with the group's accomplishments, but remains convinced that it was important for them to be recognized as "female nation builders" and says that their "flaws could be dealt with afterwards." Tell that to the people in Alberta who live today with the after-effects of a sterilization procedure foisted on them "not based on hatred" but as "a neutral scientific solution to a problem," as the Famous 5 website would want people to believe.

Or challenge the results of a recent study completed by Daniel Lai at the University of Calgary showing that more than 50 per cent of the city's 42,000-strong Chinese community have experienced some form of racism, or convince members of Jewish and Muslim communities across this country where hate crimes are on the rise that the racism evident in Mrs. Murphy's writings can be explained away because it was "the time" she lived in.

Sorry.

These five women were clearly pioneers of the feminist movement and should be recognized for their accomplishments. Their success with the Persons Case lives on, with 33 women currently appointed to the 308-member Senate. Two huge bronze statues honour the Famous Five in Calgary and Ottawa. But to put them on the back of a banknote that passes through our multicultural society is one step too far.

It legitimizes racism and xenophobia, and ultimately taints the bill.

dyedlin@globeandmail.ca