Today we celebrate the landmark ruling from 1929 granting that women are indeed "persons" under Canadian law. The issue at hand was eligibility for appointment to the Senate in a case involving a judge and women's advocate, Emily Murphy, and four other leading feminists from Alberta, “the Famous Five.”
For historical context and its implications in contemporary legal disputes north and south of the Canada/US border, check out Linda Greenhouse’s fascinating article in the New York Times.
In honour of Persons Day, I want to make a special call out to Diane Spivak. It’s because of Diane that I work in media today, that I’m a writer. She got me my first job out of grad school. We had shared a class together at UofT and she recommended me to her boss, Linda Rainsberry, a Gemini-winning TV producer with a mania for social justice. I walked into an interview without even a résumé and got hired on the spot. I got a job as a researcher at TVO, working alongside Diane and Linda on a literacy project (later I’d be a field director and producer before moving into print as arts editor at Xtra). I call Diane out, not just because she is a woman who helped me at the beginning of my career, but also because her mother, Mira, happens to be a former senator (I only met her once, at Diane’s wedding). Mira Spivak represented Manitoba in the upper chamber from 1986 to 2009. Married to Sid Spivak, a former provincial leader of the Progressive Conservatives in Manitoba, Mira was appointed to the Senate by Brian Mulroney. But Mira believed in the "progressive" side of her party and left the Conservative caucus to sit as in independent when the PCs merged with the Alliance Party.
I haven’t really kept track of Diane, a writer and literacy advocate, over the years. The last time I saw her was a few years ago at Linda Rainsberry's funeral. But Diane's name popped up recently in the most felicitous way: She is a member of the 2013 Toronto Book Awards Committee that just awarded this year’s prize to my friend and colleague Kamal al-Solaylee for his memoir, Intolerable, about growing up in Yemen and Egypt before emigrating to Canada. Coming into his own as a writer and gay man, Kamal writes movingly about his feelings of powerlessness as he watches religious conservatism and economic instability slowly change his family back in Yemen, especially his sisters, how they resemble less and less the women he loves, their very personhood under threat.
One of the smartest things I ever did in my career as an editor was to give Kamal, now an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson and former Globe and Mail theatre reviewer, his first-ever byline; it’s a point that Kamal, always the gracious and generous soul, often acknowledges.
Isn’t it funny how small kindnesses can string together to create such unforeseen consequences. Emily Murphy, Mira and Diane Spivak, Linda Rainsberry, me and Kamal -- we are all linked in a very strange, roundabout way.
The central image from Greenhouse’s New York Times article stems from a quote in the 1929 ruling that called Canada’s constitution “a living tree.” The living tree doctrine in Canada (as opposed to the conservative "originalism" in the US, for example) allows for the meaning and application of our constitution and laws to change and grow as we change and grow, as a people, as a country. So persons, please remember to water daily with care and kindness.