Each month, we feature a professor from the Faculty who supports and contributes to feminist legal thought.
Shirley Greenberg Chair
Interviewed by: Ashley Seely
AS: We know where you are now, so would you be able to tell us where you started? What was your first job?
AC: When I was 12 years old, I was put in charge of other children in the summer. A family hired me to babysit their four children.
AS: You’ve come a long way! What was your path to law?
AC: I knew I wanted to do human rights work, for sure, and law seemed like an academic aspiration. I was enthusiastic about my studies and I came from a family where no one had a law degree, so I thought it was a goal to aim for academically. By the time I was in high school I had a pretty clear idea that I wanted to be a human rights lawyer — I wrote it in my yearbook. It seemed like a big deal, a pinnacle of achievement.
AS: Did you know you were interested in the academic side of law then, or did that happen later?
AC: No, that happened much later.
AS: Can you tell me a little bit more about how that interest developed?
AC: I ended up doing my masters of law because I was interested in learning more about feminism and I wanted, for life reasons, to move from Halifax to Vancouver. So I left Halifax and moved to Vancouver. I’ve always been academically inclined, but the masters was a bit of an excuse, something to do while I figured out what I wanted to do. I started doing pro bono anti-violence work, and that’s when everything started to come together. I did the math about living off contracts in anti-violence NGOs versus doing that and teaching. Which I really wanted, I wanted to teach. The academic job would combine those things, the NGO, and the academic work, and more teaching, which I discovered during my masters that I really loved.
AS: What are you working on right now that you’re particularly excited about or proud of?
AC: I’m the Chair of the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA). We’re a national women’s NGO, who advocates at the United Nations and the Inter American Human Rights Committee to have Canada live up to our international human rights obligations in relation to women. So we’ve been working, in the time I’ve been Chair, on bringing to the fore issues that involve Indigenous women in particular.
I’m co-Chair of the Ottawa Rainbow Friendship Alliance, which is a private sponsorship group for LGBTQ refugees. That club grew out of a way to try to mark the work of the late professor Nicole LaViolette, who was a scholar and French Common Law professor. It’s made up of faculty, students, and community members. Here at the law school we teach law students how to do the legal part of these refugee applications. So Nick Hersh does the course, and we’re proud to say that we have two newcomers as a result of the work of the group, and they are being actively resettled as we speak, which is really exciting.
I’m currently holding the Greenberg Chair here at the faculty. It’s a huge opportunity to basically do and fund all the feminist dream work you want to do. The capacity to fund research and events, and the speaker series, and to support feminist student endeavours, it’s really fabulous. It’s allowed me to deepen my relationship with the feminist student groups at the faculty and I’ve really loved that. I have had wonderful feminist mentorship and friendship here at the faculty, so this places me right in the middle of all that, working with my great feminist colleagues.
AS: What is the best thing about being a professor at uOttawa?
AC: The students at uOttawa are phenomenal. I have taught at a few other universities as a sessional — this is my first full-time tenured gig — and my experience with the uOttawa students has been that they’re receptive, they’re interested, they’re enthusiastic, and they’re inspirational. They have ideas about how they want the world and the law to look, now and in the future, and they’re taking active steps to realize that, to make it a reality. I’m a firm believer in pushing my boundaries around pedagogy. So sometimes I’ll use my students. They’re the first to try something that I’ve developed in reading pedagogical theory and they’re unerringly open to new experiences, and new ways of learning. My experience is that they’ve always embraced those new ways of learning enthusiastically.
AS: What about your free time? Can you tell us your favourite book or movie?
AC: Right now I am reading Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich.
AS: And would you recommend it?
AC: It’s fantastic, absolutely. Another one I’ve read recently is called The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It won the Pulitzer.
My favourite movie is an older Russian movie called Burnt by the Sun. It’s incredibly mega political, but its also so much about the personal. It’s about a Russian family and about a really difficult point in Russian History, so you get all of the historical piece, but it’s really about what happens to this one particular family. And it’s beautifully shot.
AS: Tell me about your love for blank.
AC: I love vegetarian cooking.
AS: Is this a love born of necessity, or is it a passion?
AC: No, I really love it.
AS: As the Greenberg Chair, and as such an engaged and supportive faculty member, you’re something of a feminist role model — have you always been involved in feminist activities?
AC: I had to do a lot of paid work when I was doing my JD, I was supporting myself, so I held two jobs when I went to law school. I wanted very much to be a part of the feminist movement, there was a lot going on in NS at the time. Part of the move to BC was being really excited to get engaged. It was in BC that I really got involved with feminist groups, mostly working in the women’s anti-violence movement. And I had great feminist role models and mentors at UBC.
AS: If you had one piece of advice for law students what would it be?
AC: Try and get enough sleep.
AS: Do you have any advice on how to do that?
AC: Stay off of your computers, just read. Focus on a particular reading and just block off time to read. Don’t read off of your computers, if you have to read on your computers, get the software that freezes other applications. It shouldn’t take you three hours to read 15 pages. If it does, you’re multitasking. Stop multitasking and do your readings. That’s how I do it. Don’t book your Air BNB, or do your online shopping, or browse Facebook. You can do those other things when you’re exhausted, but you can’t do your readings when you’re exhausted. Then it becomes a choice, do I do an hour of Facebook or do I go to sleep? So you go to sleep. That’s how I do it, that’s how I get everything done.