Celebrating NAWL's Five Decades of Feminist Law Reform in Canada

  • April 02, 2024
  • Angela Ogang, Vice-Chair, OBA Women Lawyers Forum

Last month, I attended the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL)’s 50th Anniversary Reception and Awards on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, marking five decades of feminist law reform advocacy in Canada.audience seated in rows in a meeting room listening to presenter at podium against backdrop of screens with " 50 50" and "NAWL's 50th Anniversary Reception" written on them

Among the esteemed guests were Algonquin Elder Annie Smith-St-Georges, who led the opening prayers, the Honourable Arif Virani, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and the Honourable Justice Freda M. Steel of the Court of Appeal of Manitoba, who delivered the keynote address. Also in attendance were numerous other dignitaries and champions of women's rights.

Recalling her acceptance of Prime Minister Harper’s apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential School System, Annie Smith-St-Georges shared her own experiences of trauma and PTSD and emphasized the need for reconciliation and action, stating, “Everybody says think out of the box, but now it’s a call to action. Let’s jump out of the box.” In particular, she stressed the need to prevent the criminalization of Indigenous youth suffering from trauma, who, due to fear, are reluctant to seek medical help or shelter, often to their own detriment. She advocated for healing and support systems for these youth rather than resorting to punishment. She also called for collective action to address the systemic issues facing Indigenous women and communities.

Hon. Arif Virani acknowledged the importance of taking action, particularly in light of recent legislative developments such as Rona Ambrose's law on sexual assault training for judges (Bill C-5) and amendments to the Divorce Act, the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act, and the Garnishment, Attachment and Pension Diversion Act that modernized federal family law (Bill C-78), both of which were influenced by NAWL. The Attorney General discussed ongoing efforts in legislation regarding family care and contraception (Bill C-64) aimed at improving health equity, affordability, and outcomes for millions of Canadians. He also touched on the issue of online safety in light of the recent introduction of Bill C-63 and stressed the need to balance free speech with the prevention of harmful online content. Additionally, he addressed the nomination process in the judiciary and urged women to step forward and assist him with the task at hand.

In her keynote address, Justice Freda Steel highlighted significant milestones in the advancement of women's rights and the increasing representation of women in law schools and on the bench. She reflected on past struggles, recalling personal instances of gender discrimination, including living in a world of men at work and being greeted by a judge with “good morning gentlemen and other members of the bar.” Justice Steel underscored the ongoing importance of NAWL's advocacy and also acknowledged the persistent challenges faced by women, including intimate partner violence, parental alienation, and cybercrimes. As she prepares to retire after 29 years on the bench, Justice Steel expressed hope for a future where women's rights are fully realized. She concluded her speech with a quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

NAWL has been an incredible force in advocating for women's rights within the Canadian legal framework. Over the past five decades, NAWL has successfully influenced legislative changes, notably by lobbying alongside other women’s groups for amendments to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the early 1990s, and framing Section 28, which granted equality rights to women. In addition to this, NAWL has played an instrumental role in supporting Indigenous women's rights by advocating against discriminatory provisions in the Indian Act. NAWL has also advocated for changes to the criminal code to protect survivors of sexual violence and combat rape culture. Through its intersectional approach, NAWL continues to fight for the rights of all women to ensure their safety in a world where they feel fully included. 

To learn more about NAWL's impactful work, watch their mini-documentary “Rightfully Hers” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dy0sFUMjGQ


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