October is Women’s History Month and October 18 is Persons Day, named in honour of the “Famous Five” – Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby – whose statues sit atop Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in restful repose of the monumental achievement of the legal equality of women, as persons, under the law.
It was a hard-fought and hard-won battle, achieved on October 18, 1929, when the British Privy Council overturned the Supreme Court of Canada’s earlier decision declaring that women were not considered to be “persons” under the law. In overruling Canada’s decision and upholding the Supreme Court of Alberta’s decision to legally endorse women’s rights, as persons, to hold office, the “Persons Case” has become a touchstone for the legal equality, judicial leadership, and democratic participation of all Canadian women.
But the hard-fought nature of the battle began not with the Famous Five, nor even with the Alberta magistrate, Alice Jamieson, whose right to hold public office and serve as a magistrate in her capacity as a woman, was under attack. The real “battle of the sexes” was female, and pitted a white, middle-class, privileged woman in a position of judicial power, Alice Jamieson, against a marginalized, destitute, “Half-breed” prostitute named Lizzie Cyr. In handing down her sentence of the “immoral” Lizzie Cyr, Magistrate Jamieson reflected white, middle-class mores, and social and moral standards typical of her fellow male magistrates at the time. Jamieson’s only “error” was her femaleness, which became the proxy for a legal battle that had little to do with the plight or fate of Lizzie Cyr as a Métis sex worker.
As noted in Sarah Burton’s 2017 description of the arrest, trial and conviction of Lizzie Cyr, this event would lead to “one of the most famous decisions in Canadian jurisprudence: the Persons Case.” Charged as a “loose, idle or disorderly person or vagrant” under section 238(a) of the Criminal Code, Lizzie Cyr’s lived experience of having received compensation for her sexual labour, subsequently falling ill as a result of her labour, and then being charged, convicted and imprisoned for having undertaken such labour, is a recurring and consistent theme in the lives of countless First Nations, Inuit, and Métis women and girls throughout Canada’s history. These ongoing, lived experiences have created an uneasy narrative not well metabolized or addressed by power holders across the Canadian polity, then or now.
The systemic hyper-sexualization, overcriminalization, misogyny and dehumanization of First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and girls – particularly those who engage in paid sexual labour – is a chronic public policy problem demanding solutions across public safety, policing, correctional, health, social service, and educational sectors. These solutions have proven enduringly elusive decade after decade, as witnessed by the most recent appeal by Bradley Barton of his 12-year sentence for having brutally murdered a Métis woman, Cindy Gladue, in Edmonton in June 2011, whose livelihood depended in part on labour in the sex trade.
While Barton remains able to access the judicial appeal process at will, Cindy Gladue’s family is left with the devastating loss of a mother, daughter, auntie and friend who was loved and valued. Similarly, while Burton sees Lizzie Cyr as the “loser” in this otherwise powerful feminist narrative of the Famous Five and the Persons Case, Ms. Cyr’s role in the celebration and commemoration of Persons Day is also not without its own intrinsic value, integrity and honour.
The lives of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis women and girls are not always replete with stories of middle class heroines carving out equal spaces and places for the women of Canada. But Lizzie Cyr’s story – just like Cindy Gladue’s story – have intrinsic value, integrity and honour – and deserve a central place in today’s celebration of the advancement of equality for all women in Canada.
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