Presentation of the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case
Rideau Hall, Tuesday, October 29, 2013
“Whenever I don’t know whether to fight or not, I always fight!” Emily Murphy, the woman who uttered those words, was a fighter. So were Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby. These five famous women were not fighters of arms. The weapons they used were and still are the most powerful of all: keenness of mind and kindness of heart.
They marshalled their intelligence and compassion to strike an injustice from the law of our land and win a victory not just for women in Canada at one time but a victory for all Canadians for all time.
Constance Backhouse, Nahanni Fontaine, Susan Kathryn Shiner, Cherry Smiley, Julie Lalonde—you too are fighters. Your struggle is different from that of the Famous Five, yet it is no less important to our country. You strive everyday against relentless scourges that far too many women in our country must suffer—ignorance, poverty, fear.
You fight because you know in your minds and in your hearts that women in our country will not be fully free until they are able to pursue any goals they want in the manner they choose.
You fight because women are not fully free until they can decide exactly how they live their lives, raise their children and pursue their careers.
You fight so that women will be able to learn, grow and advance as far as their minds and hearts can take them.
You fight so that they might fulfil their potential unhindered by the crippling constraints of intimidation and violence.
You five incredible women fight knowing that Canada will never be the smart and caring nation it must be until all women in our country are fully, truly free.
With your intelligence and compassion, you propel our country further along that path that the Famous Five blazed for all Canadians. You are the famous five of the Canada of our time.
We extend to you a nation’s thanks. In doing so, we encourage you to carry on your good work. We inspire others to act upon your example. And we deliberately highlight for all Canadians the values we hold dear and must continue to hold high—equality, fairness, freedom.
Saluting you as successors of the Famous Five also enables us to think carefully about—and learn from—the long arc of history. British literary critic John Carey said that history’s most useful task is to show us how keenly, honestly and painfully past generations pursued aims that now seem to us wrong or disgraceful.
More than half a century needed to pass from the time of Confederation before the actions of the Famous Five galvanized our country to strike from our law a relic of more barbarous times.
What will Canadians 50 years from now say about the condition of women in our country in 2013? I think they will say that far too many women in our country today suffer the physical wounds and mental trauma of violence, intimidation and fear.
I can say something so blunt because one of our finest characteristics as Canadians is we never shy away from learning the truth about ourselves collectively—the good and the bad. We are not a people who tell pleasant lies to ourselves.
The five women we honour today are deeply involved in helping women who are victims of violence now and in ending violence against women for all time. Inspired by their noble example, we Canadians must expand our minds, open our hearts, cast away our comforting misconceptions and act to free women of all ages from every manner of violence, intimidation and fear.
You famous five women are showing your fellow citizens the way ahead. Our duty is to follow your lead—to fight with keen minds and kind hearts to ensure women are fully, truly free, and in so doing make our country the smart, caring one it must become for us all.