Honour McClung

In the Formal Garden in Assiniboine Park can be found Manitoba’s only public statue commemorating the accomplishments of Nellie McClung, who played a leading role in women receiving the vote in Manitoba in 1916. She is also noted as one of the “Famous Five,” who 80 years ago took a court case all the way to the Privy Council in London, England, to have Canadian women declared “persons” and eligible to sit in the Canadian Senate.

The WinnipegREALTORS®-established Citizens Hall of Fame has likenesses of 35 inductees who have made an outstanding contribution to Winnipeg’s quality of life. McClung, the 1988 inductee, certainly qualifies under this criteria.

Recent media reports deplore the fact that McClung does not have a statue commemorating her on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature. Actually, no statues of famous Manitoba women are displayed on the grounds, but there is a statue of Queen Victoria, who never visited the province. The absence of statues dedicated to famous Manitoba women is an oversight that deserves to be quickly rectified, especially since Alberta and Ottawa have prominent statues of McClung in the company of the other “Famous Five,” which also included Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily Murphy and Louise McKinney.

The male-dominated statues on the grounds of Manitoba’s capital includes foreign personalities such as Icelandic independence leader Jon Sigurdsson, Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and Scottish poet Robert Burns. There is even a statue of French explorer Jacques Cartier.

On the other hand, the Citizens Hall of Fame in Assiniboine Park features bronze statues of eight famous Manitoba women. Besides McClung, the likenesses include Isabel Auld, noted for her community service; E. Cora Hind, a pioneering  journalist; Mary Johnson, who was involved in public affairs; Sister Geraldine McNamara, a teacher who sought to improve the life of inner-city youth; Sybil Shack, an educator and promoter of the arts; as well as renowned writers Carol Shields and Gabrielle Roy.

A private member’s bill introduced by Tory MLA Myrna Dreidger and passed in the legislature — a rare occurrence — established the Nellie McClung Foundation in 2003 in order to raise funds for the establishment of a statue on the Legislative Grounds. The volunteer board has raised $500,000, but a statue has yet to be erected as more money is required to make the project a reality.

On October 2, Canadian Status of Women Minister Helena Guergis attended a luncheon hosted by the Ottawa Famous 5 Committee to honour the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case, which annually recognizes outstanding individuals who have helped to advance the goal of equality for women.

“The legacy of the Famous Five endures through the contributions of these women ... we gather today to honour these outstanding Canadians — and in doing so, we also honour the achievements of those who have gone before us, embedding them in our history, our culture, and in our lives,” said the minister.

In Manitoba, McClung’s historical legacy should be evident to every woman now voting in provincial elections. Until McClung and other women joined the battle, including 2003 Citizens Hall of Fame inductee E. Cora Hind, the commonly-held belief among Manitoba’s male-dominated political elite was “nice women don’t want the vote.”

In 1912, McClung joined with the Winnipeg Women’s Press Club to organize the Political Equity League. By 1914, she was prepared to confront Manitoba Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin. In a personal interview with suffragettes,  Roblin was galled by the audacity of their call for the vote. McClung told the premier, “You will hear from me later Sir Roblin ... and you might not like what you hear.”

“Is that a threat?” Roblin asked.

“No,” said McClung. “A prophecy!”

Roblin did hear from McClung at the Mock Parliament held at the Walker Theatre on January 28, 1914, during which the suffragette burlesqued the premier. The hilarity of the suffragettes’ comedic drama earned widespread newspaper coverage. By using humour, the suffragettes earned greater acceptance  and men began to see how ludicrous it was to deny them the vote, which was finally granted on January 28, 1916.

In 1915, McClung predicted that: “The time will come when women will be economically free and spiritually independent enough to have their food paid for by men, when women will receive equal pay for equal work and have all activities open to them, when free men and women will marry for love and together work for the sustenance of their family.”

The Persons case, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary on October 18, is a landmark in Canadian legal history.  In 1921, the Women’s Club of Montreal approached Prime Minister Arthur Meighen to reward Emily Murphy for her hard work as an Alberta magistrate by appointing her to the Senate. But Meighen’s legal department told him only “quality persons” could serve in the Senate, and as British Common Law clearly stated, women were not counted as “persons.” Amazingly, this criteria only applied to the Senate, as women could be elected to the House. 

Murphy joined with the other women, including McClung who by then moved to Alberta, after her brother advised her that Section 60 of the Supreme Court of Canada Act allowed any five persons to initiate an appeal for a clarification under the British North America Act. They brought their petition before the court on March 14, 1928. But the Supreme Court ruled Canadian women, along with “children, criminals and idiots,” were not legally “persons.”

Finally on October 18, 1929, the Supreme Court decision was overturned by the Privy Council in London (then the final arbitrator of law for Canada), and women were declared “persons.” Lord Sankey announced the five lords described the exclusion of women from a federal office as “a relic of days more barbarous than ours ... and to ask why the word (persons) should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?”

And to ask why statues of famous Manitoba women should be included at the legislative grounds, should also receive the reply, “Why should it not?”