by Lee Lakeman, Sept 27, 2002
I am not a lawyer and neither are any of the women who work in my Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter. Nor do lawyers work in the many CASAC centres of anti-violence activity across the country. In fact when young women who are attending law school want to volunteer with us we feel obliged to warn them off. They probably should not do so because it is still impossible to work effectively in a rape crisis centre or a transition house and not be breaking the Canadian law on a regular basis. Partly thanks to you, we’ll be breaking the law a little less often.
I trust I am the only woman here who hasn’t read all your decisions. But I have read enough to know that I can read them. There is something in your writing, your manner, your self-revelations that makes it clear to us, the non- lawyers, that you mean for us to understand.
We women in the anti-rape centres are not quick to believe that the law or our current legal institutions are the route to freedom and justice for women. Rather we face that it is necessary for us to commit acts of civil disobedience in which we refuse to submit to and comply with unjust laws and procedures. Hiding records or destroying records will be one act you know about. But of course there is also immigration law, the obligation to report crimes, and the need to hide prostitutes and wives and daughters. There are the welfare frauds necessary to feed children and the probation orders that must be ignored to survive.
But we are before the courts often because the women who call us cannot usually choose their engagement with law. They are desperate for protection, they are striped of agency, and they are impoverished by social policy. Our experience, the experience of women in courts, whether lawyers, witnesses, complainants or accused are still a shame on the state. And still denied. Overall the courts are of very little help to women facing down sexism either as individuals or as a group.
We anti-rape workers may not believe in law but we know that you do. When we do appeal to the courts, our efforts can seem to fall on deaf ears. We have often been left to worry that we had not made ourselves clear. But sometimes because of you we heard back that we had been heard and understood. And so sometimes we knew unequivocally that the problem was not argument. We had sometimes been refused justice. But even then we could take some comfort in minority positions, a question or comment. We could improve our tactics and strategies. Those acts of yours have sometimes made us less likely to abandon legal strategies altogether.
Young women often argue to us that they plan to go to law school as the effective way to be a feminist. I never encourage this. We have a greater need for the political and social activism that will drive legal change. But we do believe we have a critical mass of legal scholars and practitioners and students now. That mass is critical to anything that can be done through law and you were and are still part of the knife-edge, which made the numbers, and the philosophy of law that accumulated into that mass. Women see themselves as becoming lawyers because of your integrity. Yours is a professional and social achievement of barrier breaking and tone changing and substance giving. It was and is a refusal to accept ceilings and notions of the rightful place for women.
We understand that you have made these achievements in ways that opened choices for other women. We admire not only your professional work but also the way you have conducted yourself as a public woman. Your judicious manner and personal discretion was expected. Your skill and discipline to transcend personal identity was terribly important to a public scandalized by too many self-serving public figures. But you have also been sensual and funny and charming and very very personally tough. No princess and the pea stories about you! You have repeatedly revealed how the attacks have shaped your life as well as the kudos. That you were viciously attacked is not a surprise but that you were so open in your resistance was.
You have made it clear that you knew you were breaking ground that belonged to all women of achievement. We know that you have been hurt and we know that you have a great joy. It is a gift to us that you reveal both. Most of us grew up with the notion that while some women might achieve great things it would be punished by isolation and loneliness You haven’t hidden your womanly existence behind the judicial robes pretending to be an almost man. This too has been important example.
The rape crisis centre women were barely aware of the fight to achieve the Charter. The fight to establish the inclusion of women as a group in need of protection from and by government was won largely by more educated and privileged women. But that critical mass of women in law and particularly some of the feminist lawyers in this room have introduced us to the promise of the Charter. Often they did so by pointing to you.
It is not hopeless they tell us; it is possible to add the promise of the Charter to the promise of international agreements. It is possible to have equality interpreted to mean something of substance. It is possible to bring a justice that can be of benefit to poor women and women of colour to lesbians and mothers who dared to leave their marriages. It is possible to have that interpreted by a sensible fair-minded judge and to thereby find some step toward justice. We have learned that even if we cannot get full satisfaction before the Supreme Court, it has been possible for some measure of our reality to be reflected in the decisions of the court through minority positions, even through question and comment. We have learned to claim as our own concepts of substantive equality and compounding inequalities. You have helped to fuse hope into our demands.
This year virtually all rape crisis centre workers have been involved in a national discussion about rape law and records, rape law and assault law, rape law and damages, rape law and poverty law, rape law and international human rights. Almost every rape crisis centre and transition house has been engaged and hosting a discussion of rape law and the rights of the accused. I believe that public legal education would not be going on if the court had not had you to give it some credibility to women.
We as activist feminists have been trying to establish the right of women not victims’ rights. We have been trying to establish the prize of freedom not the prize of vengeance. We have been asserting our judgment that it is the role of governments to interfere with inequality. To add to the movement toward equality and justice. You have a significant part in raising our expectations that women have a right to the rule of law and that the rule of law in Canada includes the protection of governments from the violence that takes advantage of and also imposes an unequal status on women.
But to use the Charter in the courts takes a lifetime. I remember when I first considered Thurgood Marshal and realised that he schooled and coordinated three generations of lawyers to fight American race segregation before he could even assess his tactic. We are in our first generation of legal struggle using the Charter. But to dare to use such a tool, progressives have to have some realistic assessment that the court is a venue for meaningful and rational discourse.
I have heard women say that they fear that they will never see the likes of you again. I can promise you that I will be among the women expecting those in that critical mass to live up to your example and I will be among those to demand from Supreme Court Judges the attention to the condition of women, all the women that has been your credit.
Perhaps we are most grateful for the use you made of your right to dissent. Surely this is the first job of any woman in any position of influence or power: to refuse to be silent or compliant on matters of equality and justice. And of course it is among the most difficult of things to do. To dare to articulate a new legal understanding of the social and political imperatives, to assert a version of reality and logic and fairness that faces the world in which we live and demands that it begin to live up to our humanity at least to the extent we have won that expression in law.