The Supreme Court of Canada made a decision in 1973 about what happens to a ranch after a divorce.
It drew plenty of public criticism.
The case revealed the fault lines in Canadian society as a new generation of feminists challenged the status quo about women’s and men’s roles.
The case began when Irene Murdoch, a ranch wife from Nanton, Alta., left her home in 1968 with a broken jaw and collar bone.
She initiated a divorce that reached the Supreme Court of Alberta in 1971. The court decided she had no right to any of the property she
and her husband had accumulated over 25 years.
She appealed that decision and eventually ended
up in front of the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld the lower court ruling, three justices against two.
Although the Supreme Court recognized her contributions to the ranch, it said that Murdoch did no more than any other wife would and therefore could not make a claim to an economic partnership with her husband.
The ruling galvanized Canadian women as they realized that the matrimonial property laws showed no recognition of a wife’s labour.
In a 2003 brief about human rights, the Manitoba branch of the National Council of Women of Canada reported that when then Supreme Court chief justice Boris Laskin was later asked why he
had sat only five justices to hear Murdoch, he replied that if he had been aware of the significance of the case at the time he would
have sat the full complement of nine justices.
He added that he was surprised to find himself in the minority when the judgment favoured the husband.
The Supreme Court had a chance to change its mind in 1978.
Helen Rathwell, a rancher from Tompkins, Sask., who was seeking a divorce, was deemed to have worked as did Murdoch at all the farm chores and in addition contributed off-farm earnings to the household and farm expenses.
While lower courts denied her a share of the farm because her labour did not contribute to the assets and there was no evidence of an agreement to share ownership, higher courts overturned the decision.
The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada said that to deny her a share in the assets would result in the unjust enrichment of her husband.
In writing the five to four majority decision for the Supreme Court, justice Brian Dickson agreed with the appeal court ruling that said for western agriculture “the kitchen was just as much an integral part of the farming operation as the feedlot or the machine shed.”
However, Margaret Harris, then-head of Saskatchewan’s Advisory Council on the Status of Women, said the Rathwell decision was only a partial step forward.
The court decision rested on the fact Rathwell had put her own money into the farm when she and her husband bought it in 1946.
It was her financial contribution rather than her unpaid work that was counted.
Even the judges noted that the laws needed to be changed to bring about equality.
So the battle moved to provincial legislatures. The provinces were prodded into various amendments to their matrimonial property acts to erase the necessity of a wife’s financial contribution.
In a 2000 speech to Osgoode Hall law college in Toronto, Rosalie Abella, later to be appointed to the Supreme Court, said the 1978 decision forced most to realize it was “time to adjust to a new appreciation about the role played by husbands and wives in a marriage. Time, in short, to create a new social contract. The public cheered. The media cheered. Within months, practically every province had amended its family property laws accordingly.”
For farmers and ranchers, however, there were fewer cheers as parents and sons began to deal with the reality that a broken marriage could mean the former daughter-in-law got half the farm.