Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Emily Murphy was the first woman police magistrate in Canada (and probably in the British Empire), a noted suffragist who led in bringing the "Persons Case," an indefatigable worker for the rights of women, and a popular writer both under her maiden name, Emily Ferguson, and the pen name "Janey Canuck."

Emily Ferguson was born on March 14, 1868, to a prominent Protestant Irish family in Crookston, Ontario, and educated at the Bishop Strachan School in Toronto. In 1887 she married the Reverend Arthur Murphy. They were the parents of four daughters, two of whom died in childhood. When her husband was transferred to Winnipeg, Manitoba, she became the literary editor of a local paper. She published her first book, Janey Canuck Abroad, in 1902. In 1907, after three years on a homestead near Swan River, Manitoba, the family moved to Edmonton, Alberta, where Murphy lived for the rest of her life. Her second book, Janey Canuck in the West (1910), describes some Swan River experiences and expresses her delight with the freedom of Great Plains spaces and people.

From 1910 to 1916 Murphy was one of the most effective workers for suffrage and women's rights in the province, forcing the passage of the Alberta Dower Act in 1911. In April 1916 Alberta became the second province to enfranchise women, and two months later Murphy was appointed police magistrate. Almost immediately a lawyer questioned her eligibility on the ground that a woman was not a "person" in the legal meaning of the word and hence could not serve as a court officer. The Alberta courts upheld a woman's right to serve in 1917. As a police magistrate, Murphy dealt primarily with women and children as both victims and offenders. The twin problems of prostitution and drug addiction particularly gripped her. She organized her friends and social contacts to provide jobs and other support for women trying to leave the street, and in 1922 she published The Black Candle, considered to be the first comprehensive book on drug addiction in North America. Like many social reformers of her day, including her close friend Nellie McClung, she advocated birth control and sterilization for "defective" persons. She also advocated for women's right to work and for adequate health care for everyone.

In 1921 Murphy was nominated for the Senate, the appointive upper house of Canada's parliament, but Prime Minister Arthur Meighen refused to appoint her, citing the familiar argument that as a woman, she was not a person under the meaning of the British North American Act, Canada's enabling legislation. With four other leading Prairie suffragists, Murphy petitioned for an interpretation of the act, and finally, on October 18, 1929, the British Privy Council ruled that all women in the British Empire were "persons." Much to Murphy's disappointment, however, she never did become a senator. Party politics decreed that Cairine Wilson would be the only woman appointed to the Senate before Murphy's sudden death in Edmonton on October 26, 1933.

Frances W. Kaye University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Cleverdon, Catherine L. The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Ferguson (Murphy), Emily. Janey Canuck in the West. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1975.

James, Donna. Emily Murphy. Don Mills, Ontario: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1977.

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