Manitoba History: Exhibit: Mollie-Irene Ives: Dressing for Court

by Sharon Reilly
Curator of Social History, The Manitoba Museum

Number 56, October 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Mollie-Irene Ives exhibit will be on display in the foyer of The Manitoba Museum from 2 October 2007 to 31 January 2008. Contact the Museum at 204-943-3139 for hours and location.

In November of 1969, Mollie-Irene Ives of Winnipeg made history when she became the first woman to successfully plead her own case before the Supreme Court of Canada. On only two previous occasions, once in 1947, and then in 1955, had a woman represented her own case before the high court. Neither of these appeals was successful.

Molly Irene Ives

Mollie-Irene Ives (February 1970)
Source: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune Collection

The Mollie-Irene Ives case began in the spring of 1964, when the Province of Manitoba expropriated 80 acres of a 140-acre parcel of land in the Bird’s Hill area that Ives had purchased in 1963. Not only did she lose land, but the expropriation also cut off access to her remaining acreage. The government wanted the land under dispute for its newly created Bird’s Hill Provincial Park. Ives and some 60 other landowners in the area protested that the expropriation of their lands, nearly 9,000 acres in total, had proceeded without consultation and recourse to appeal. Ives soon became the most vocal opponent of the government’s actions.

Although Ives had paid only $6,000 for her 140 acreage, she still refused the Province’s offer of $12,330 for her 80 acres. She was determined to draw public attention to what she believed was the injustice of laws that permitted governments to file for land expropriation at a land titles office and then simply inform the owners that their land had been taken over.

As a first step in her quest to challenge the law in court, Ives and her lawyer appeared in county court to plead her case before a provincially appointed arbitrator. In January 1968, the arbitrator ruled in her favour and awarded her $20,570 for the expropriated land. The Province refused to accept the arbitrator’s report and launched an appeal of the decision before the Manitoba Court of Appeals. The Appeals Court reversed the arbitrator’s decision and reinstated the original provincial allocation of $12,320. Ives had to either accept the ruling or appeal it to the Supreme Court of Canada. She chose the appeals route, knowing that the battle would be costly and time consuming. Ives knew that her gender and non-legal background would make it an even more daunting task. She had determined already the fees for the lawyer and two land assessors needed to provide evidence in support of her case meant that she could not afford to pay additional legal fees. Ives’ decision to represent herself before the Supreme Court demonstrated her absolute conviction that the laws on expropriation were undemocratic.

Ives spent eighteen months in the painstaking preparation of her case. She compiled and paid for the preparation of twenty-five copies of a 200-page casebook that contained all the details of the expropriated land and the proceedings of her previous court appearances. She prepared a “factum” in which she stated her reasons for appealing the Manitoba court decision. Finally, after eighteen months of research, writs were filed and submitted to the Supreme Court in Ottawa.

At many points along the way, the hostility from the predominantly male legal system frustrated Ives. When she arrived at the Supreme Court, for example, a clerk dressed in robes informed her that there was no seating area available for women. Ives was directed to a chair in the men’s lounge that opened onto the men’s shower room. She later recalled the embarrassment of seeing several male lawyers in various stages of undress who took great pleasure in taunting her from the archway leading to the showers. They made it clear that females were not welcome in the Supreme Court.

Ives appeared before five judges of the Supreme Court and, on 5 February 1970, they ruled in her favour. She was awarded $20,570 plus the costs of her legal challenge. This brought to an end Ives’ six-year legal battle. The story had all the drama of David and Goliath, except in this case the underdog was a woman. This important victory cleared the way for other landowners to negotiate improved settlements with the provincial government.

Mollie-Irene Ives received local and national press coverage over her Supreme Court victory. She became something of a local celebrity. Local newspapers sought her out regularly for comment on many different public issues. She spoke about the many cultural and economic barriers facing women, including being trying to have her ideas taken seriously in patronizing news reports that identified her variously as “Mrs. Charles Ives” or the “a pretty blonde housewife and mother.” In a newspaper report in 1967 Ives told the story about how as a woman she could not buy cigars. Born in Winnipeg in 1920, to a family of six daughters, Mollie had begun the unladylike practice of smoking cigars with her father after dinner when she was thirteen. After his death in 1959 she tried to purchase a supply for herself from the firm in England from which her father had ordered his cigars. The company informed Ives in no uncertain terms that it catered only to a male clientele. As she concluded in her 1967 interview, “it’s a man’s world.”

Ives’ interest in politics dated to the Red River flood of 1950. She helped with flood relief work and later supported victims of the flood seeking government compensation for their losses. Her family was one of those who suffered greatly during the flood. On April 20, two days after a young volunteer helping to pump water out of a neighbour’s basement drowned in a sudden burst of floodwaters, the Ives family was forced to abandon its Kingston Row home in St. Vital. By the time the river peaked there were sixteen inches of water in the attic of the house. After the flood, Ives became the secretary of the Greater Winnipeg Flood Protection committee and later worked on the European Flood Relief Fund.

In the years that followed Ives remained interested and increasingly active in politics. She served as a member of the Manitoba Civil Defence Board under Premier D. L. Campbell from 1952 - 1959, and participated in the Canadian-American Civil Defence Convention held in Winnipeg in 1955. In 1953, she was appointed to the Manitoba Censorship Board. Ives opposed censorship but was prepared to classify movies to inform the public of their content. The Board screened films in a private movie theatre in the basement of the Legislative Building, and when the House was in session Ives stayed late to listen to the debates. She was also active in the Manitoba Urban Association, secretary of her community club, a member of the (South Winnipeg) YMCA Board of Directors, and a “lady” air raid warden in St. Vital. In 1970, after her victory before the Supreme Court, Ives was approached by various officials including James Richardson, MP for Winnipeg South, concerning a possible appointment to the Senate. She declined. She preferred to live in Winnipeg where she still lives today. Mollie-Irene Ives resides at Fred Douglas Place. She will be 88 years of age on 1 January 2008.

Mollie Irene Ives

Mollie-Irene Ives chose this outfit, which she recently donated to The Manitoba Museum, for her appearance before the Supreme Court of Canada in November 1969. When the “Bird’s Hill” case came up, Mollie recalls, she had three days notice and did not know what to wear. She went downtown to a boutique at Eaton’s and asked the salesclerk for something that “looked like lawyer’s robes.” Mollie was shown “a very expensive dress made from a new, synthetic fabric” that she bought “on the spot, without even trying it on.” Mollie also donated her monogrammed briefcase and a copy of the “factum” that she prepared for her appeal.
Source: Robert Barrow

Page revised: 15 September 2013