'The courts have turned women into slaves for the men of this world': Irene Murdoch's Quest for Justice

AuthorVanessa Gruben, Angela Cameron, and Angela Chaisson
“The courts have turned women into
slaves for the men of this world”:
Irene Murdoch’s Quest for Justice
“If they hadn’t abolished appeals to the Pr ivy Council . . .
I would have gone all the way to the Privy Counc il.
—Ernest Shymka
I Suprem e Court of Canada issued a ruling i n MurdochvMurdoch
denying Irene “Ginger”Murdochaninterestinthecalera nchthatsheand
her husband, James Alexander “Alex” Murdoch, had built together over
many years. Irene performed extensive manual labour on the far m, includ
ing driv ing bra ndi ng vacc inat ing and deho rni ngc ale hayi ng rak ing and
mowingShe oftendid this workalonedue tolong oranchworkrelated
absences by Alex. When their marr iage began to break down, Irene sought to
receive her ownership interest in the ranch propert y.Howevert hece rti cate
of title to the property showed that the land belonged solely to Alex Mur
doch. For Irene to receive an interest in the property it would be necessar y
for a court to declare that a portion of the title to t he ranch was held by Alex
Murdoch in trust for his wi fe.T hepr inc ipal basi sfor ndi ngsuc hat rus the r
lawyer argued, was her contribution through labour to the ranc h operations.
That argument was rejected at tr ial and ultimately also by the Supreme Court
of Canada, which held that under existing Can adian law no property claim
was available to Irene Murdoch in the circumst ances of her case.
In one sense, the case was un remarkable. Irene Murdoch’s ci rcumstances
reected the socioeconomic real ity of many Albertan far m wivesi n fact
most married women in Canada during the s and s Cultural and
legal perceptions of farms had been profoundly shaped by the t raditional
belief that “men farm, women help” and remained an omnipresent ex
ample of the invisibility of women’s work. While husbands no longer sub
sumedtheir wiveslegaland nancialidentities aswasthelaw inAlberta
until a nachronistic matrimonial lawas wellas hierarchical farming
and family struct ures subjugated wives, forced them into positions of de
pendency, and often trapped them in relationships. Those who left their
husbands often found themselves invisible under the law, and left their mar
riages with nothing. The case reports were replete with deci sions similar to
that in Murdoch, almost a ll unsuccessful. In these a nd other cases, women
worked on family farms and in households held in their husbands’ names
and were left without proprietary interests at the relationsh ip’s dissolution.
Behind thesethere are likelyu nreportedjudgments tot hesame eectas
well as many instances in wh ich no claim was advanced owing to the per
ceived futility of such a tack, the absence of t he needed resources to take
legal action, or myriad other personal factors.
What is exceptional is that the Murdo ch case prompted outrage in Can
ada and undoubtedly contributed to law reform that sought to ameliorate
the plight of women in the position of Irene Murdoch. Her circumsta nces
provided an important narrative tool to feminists a nd other advocates for
lawreformCa nadianwomenidentied withIrene andbecame conscious
of howeasi lyt hey could nd themselves in a simila r situation Womens
groups mobilized around her experience stood up to say I am an Irene
Murdoch,” and successfully secured reforms to Ca nadian marital property
law regimes.
None of that would have been possible had it not been for Irene Mur
doch’s personal determination — and that of her lawyer, Ernest Shymka —
to bring her case to court in t he face of formidable obstacles.Irenesuered
pursued the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Muchhas beenwrien aboutthe politicaland legislativeconsequences
of this decision. This chapter looks at the Murdoc hcase through two lenses.
Therstis throughthe personalaccountof ErnestShymka The second is
by framing the case as part of a larger feminist movement for law reform, in
cluding reform to matrimonial propert y regimes. Murdochwas not only the
product of personal struggle by Irene and her lawyer; it was also a pivotal
event within the Canadia n women’s movement.
Irene as Rancher and Wife
I , I AlexMurdochseparated aftertwentyveyearsofma r
riage. The trial trans cript reveals that Irene worked tirelessly throughout
her marriage, as a “wife,” as a “ranch hand,” and at “outside jobs to augment
the farm i ncome.” Shortly after they married, Irene worked with Alex on
other ranches and they pooled their ea rnings.In the yus edt he ir 
er, to acquire a guest ranch known as the Bragg Creek property, the title
to which was taken in Alex’s name alone. Throughout the marriage they
bought and sold various properties to which both Alex and Irene contr ib
way property that was the subject of the cas e before the Supreme Court of
Canada These properties were purchased in part w ith the proceeds from
Irene’s father’s life insurance policies. Upon his death, Ire ne’s mother, Mrs.
Nash, had deposited part of the proceeds in Irene’s account and these mon
ieswerelateru sedtoacquire grazingrightsandtopurchaseland Yet, in
each instance title was held in Alex’s name.
For most of their marriage, Irene was almost exclusively responsible for
thedaytodayrunn ingofthe ranchbearing thebruntof thephysicallyde
manding work, while Alex was employed with the stock association in the
Forestry Service.Herlab ourw asba ckbr eak ingA ttr ial Iren edes cri bedh er
work as: “haying, raking, swathing, moving , driving trucks and tractors and
team squ ieti nghor sest aki ngca lebac kand forth toth eres erved ehorn ing 
vaccinating, branding, a nything that was to be done.” I n her own words, she
worked “like any other man.” In addition to her farm work and domestic
labour as a wife and mother to their one c hild, William Frederick Murdoch,
Throughout, Irene endured an unhappy and often abusive mar riage. It
seems she was a victim of domestic violence for much of her marriage. Irene
indicated in her pleadings that Alex had “assaulted [her] on a number of
occasions causing her grievous bodily har ms.” Ire nesmother conrmed
thish istoryofv iolenceattrial Shetestied thatIrene hadbeent hevictim

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