The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Rebecca Bromwich

International Women’s Day

The legacy of the Persons case

By Rebecca Bromwich March 6, 2017 6 March 2017

The legacy of the Persons case

As I noted in my  last post, in the era of post-truth and alternative facts, lawyers matter. 

This week will mark International Women’s Day. It is another reminder that progressive reform to law matters and our times don’t have to define us. 

Much is rightly made about the landmark 1929 Persons Case, which recognized women as persons under the British North America Act, 1867, which provides in its section 24, that only “qualified persons” can be appointed to the Senate.

It was the name of Emily Murphy — one of the “Famous Five” women who pushed the legal battle all the way to Privy Council — which had been put forward for the Senate.  But it was Cairine Wilson who, shortly after was appointed Canada’s first female Senator. Wilson was not one of the upstart western women who had challenged the definition of “persons” in court, but rather someone from firmly within the circles of government. She was the daughter of a senator and had become the wife of an MP, a man whom she had first met at a gala at the Governor General’s residence.  

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A telling reminder that what we do as lawyers matters

By Rebecca Bromwich February 14, 2017 14 February 2017

Many times, over the tinkling of glasses at dinner parties, I have heard lawyers reference the quote from William Shakespeare that runs ''The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.'' The line comes from Henry VI and is uttered by Dick the Butcher, a supporter of the dissident Jack Cade, who supposed that if he disturbed the rule of law, he could seize the throne. Lawyers often rely on this quotation in speeches that present grand narratives about the important role of lawyers in warding off despotism.


Reference to this quotation has often felt unduly self-laudatory.  Praise for lawyers as defenders of democracy can ring discordant with the contemporary realities of the rising cost of legal services and other barriers to access to justice.

That isn’t to say that lawyers don’t deserve some recognition for what they do. The practice of law is a tough slog in many areas, and the machinery of the administration of justice, and the cultural baggage and business forms of the legal profession, can make work as a lawyer difficult indeed.


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Legal education

My resolution for legal education: Breaking through the echo chambers

By Rebecca Bromwich January 6, 2017 6 January 2017


2017. It is a new year, a time of new snow, and a time for new ideas. I suggest one counter-cultural notion for all of our consideration that is more often expected from a right-wing thinker than a soft leftie like me:  what if legal classrooms are not meant to be safe spaces?  What if they need to be raw with articulated disagreement and debate in order for learning, and democracy, to take place?

The echo chambers of the 2016 U.S. election have insight to offer us about legal education.  My resolution for 2017 follows from this.  I want to encourage disagreement to take place within my classrooms when I teach. My resolution for 2017 is to do as Desmond Tutu says, “If you want peace, don’t talk to your friends, talk to your enemies.”

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Women in law

After Hillary’s defeat: Still stronger together

By Rebecca Bromwich November 21, 2016 21 November 2016

As a mother, and a law teacher of both undergrads and law students, I wondered what I should say the day after the U.S. Presidential election to my children, male and female, and to my students, particularly my female students, who I am trying to help instill with hope while sustaining my own.

On reflection, in the wake of the Trump victory, I am dismayed but also grateful, not just to woman leaders like Secretary Clinton, but also for the collegiality, over the years, of CBA members. It is in no small part through my involvement with the CBA that I have learned, as a woman and a lawyer, I face challenges that are shared by others, and, that in facing an uncertain future I am not alone.

Hillary Clinton is, of course, a Democrat, and an American, and a former first lady, all particular dimensions of her social location that we, as Canadian lawyers, do not share.  But there is an important way in which she is very much like us: She is a woman lawyer.  And that means the ways in which she was reviled, ridiculed, and ultimately defeated, are relevant to and hurtful for us.

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Criminal justice

The time to reform the Youth Criminal Justice Act is now

By Rebecca Bromwich October 21, 2016 21 October 2016

October 19 marked the 9th anniversary of Ashley Smith’s death in Corrections custody, whose tragic story I wrote about a year ago.  Smith died in solitary confinement at age 19 in an adult prison after having been convicted with a series of offences in relation to disciplinary infractions while in youth custody.  She was first imprisoned for the offence of throwing apples.

The verdict in the 2013 inquest into her death ruled it to be a homicide.  She died from a caustic combination of administration of justice sentences and correctional processes that excluded her and violated her rights progressively and unremittingly. I joined many others in calling for action on Canada’s problems with solitary confinement.  I also argued for a rethink of how youth criminal justice law is being deployed against girls.  

In the ensuing 12 months, much has changed, but these problems have not been solved.  We need to redouble our efforts to ensure changes to conditions of custody and the Youth Criminal Justice Act are made so that deaths like hers become less likely to occur.

October 19th also marks the first anniversary of the Trudeau governments election win. Politicians are again finally talking about solitary confinement and justice issues in general. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made direct reference to the Smith case and the need to change correctional practices in the letter to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould in November 2015

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