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Calgary champion of grass roots activism receives Order of Canada

Calgary senior inaugurated into the Order of Canada reflects on a lifetime of accomplishments.

When Frances Wright first attended school in her new country, she remembers being called a displaced person; not a true Canadian. Yet her parents, who had immigrated from South Africa, always encouraged the children to be good neighbours and citizens. 

It's what motivated Wright, 73, to take up a civic responsibility as a Canadian and now, sixty years later, as she receives membership to the Order of Canada, her gratitude still shows.

“It came a as tremendous surprise,” she said about joining 47 Canadians inaugurated into the Order of Canada in December. “I accepted it on behalf of all the people around me who take my ideas and move them along; make them succeed.” Wright previously received the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2019.

Though she credits others, Wright's many accomplishments include co-founding the Famous 5 Foundation (F5F) --the group formed by Wright and friends in 1996 as a tribute to the five women's rights activists that came to be known as The Famous Five.

Championing Women's Rights

The Famous Five were instrumental in getting Canadian women the right to sit in the Senate. Receiving that official status as 'persons' is what is celebrated each fall on 'Persons Day'. In a 2000 CBC interview, Wright called the Famous Five "democratic champions, who helped all in Canada have the ability to debate constitutional changes."

The grit of the Famous Five is reflected in Wright's own work. In 2000, on the 70th anniversary of the Persons Case and after years of Wright's petitioning, the Women are Persons Monument was unveiled on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Edmonton artist Barbara Paterson created a similar work at Olympic Plaza in Calgary. Wright and F5F also partnered with the Girl Guides as the monument's maquette toured provincial legislatures.

Wright faced an uphill battle to change two words in the national anthem. Prior to 2018, the lyrics were ‘True patriot love, in all thy sons command’. But during the Girl Guides speaking campaign, Wright said some of the fathers said "I am so proud of my daughter. I have a daughter and a son, but in the anthem, I only get to sing about my son."

Off went Wright, (with Jeanne d'Arc), launching an anthem campaign in 2001 and gathering signatures to get the words changed to 'all of us command'. It was ultimately approved by senators in 2018.

The F5F also launched the Canadian Centre for Male Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse in Calgary in 2012, an organization that helped about 150 men in its time.

“Very few boys who have experienced sexual abuse disclose and seek treatment, so they enter adulthood traumatized physically and psychologically," said Wright. “The debilitating shame and guilt grows.”

With Calgary's F5F--an organization that inspires women and girls to become nation-builders--Wright has been lauded as a tireless ambassador for grassroots social justice, giving a voice to those not often heard. 

“More women should be recognized for building Canada and all should have equal opportunities,” she said. “I have a particular sympathy with immigrants, as I am also an immigrant.”

Beatrice Keleher-Raffoul, F5F Ottawa chair who has known Wright since the foundation’s early days, said” Through her dedication, grit and passion she has moved mountains to have women recognized for their part in nation building. The more women succeed, the more Canada succeeds. Members of the Ottawa chapter and I are very excited about this. Frances is more than deserving."

Wright said the Order of Canada honour has empowered and energized her to do more, noting that older women have much to offer.

“We have so much wisdom; so many connections," she said. "Now is the time to play a leadership role; to build a community to help young women realize their dreams.”

A public ceremony for Order of Canada recipients will happen when health measures allow. For more information about the Famous Five Foundation visit famous5ottawa.ca

The Persons Case 

The Famous Five, known initially as The Alberta Five, were Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby. McClung and McKinney were Alberta MLAs and Parlby was the 2nd woman in the British Empire to hold a minister’s office, while Murphy was its first female judge.

In August 1927, Emily Murphy invited the other women to her Edmonton home to discuss petitioning the Canadian government to question the Supreme Court about use of the word 'persons' in the British North America Act (BNA). 

In 1927, Canadian women had the vote in most provinces and could be a member of parliament, but were barred from the senate. Murphy realized that chamber needed a female voice to speak on behalf of women in areas such as child custody and old age pension.

In March 1928 after the Supreme Court ruled that women were not ‘qualified persons’, the five women appealed to the judicial committee of the British Privy Council. On October 18, 1929 it overturned the Canadian court decision, ruling women were very much ‘qualified persons’ and eligible for appointment to the senate. 

The judgment by Viscount Sankey stated the “exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours . . . their Lordships do not think it right to apply rigidly to Canada of today the decisions (of) those who had to apply the law in different circumstances, in different centuries, to countries in different stages of development.”

The ruling informed what is known as the ‘living tree doctrine” in Canadian law – that a constitution is organic and must be read in a progressive manner so as to adapt it to changing times. This approach has been deeply entrenched into Canadian constitutional proceedings ever since.