The Second Voice of “The Sisterhood”

Angela Livingstone
JD Candidate, 2019

“If a unitary “women’s experience” or “feminism” must be distilled, feminists must ignore many women’s voices…In feminist legal theory, the pull of the second voice, the voice of abstract categorization, is still powerfully strong.”

– Angela Harris, 1990[1]

Feminists continue to face external and internal criticism. To those outside, we are subversive man-haters, insatiable, hardline extremists.[2] More concerning, however, are the criticisms from the women within, women who have become disillusioned with the potential of feminism to go beyond establishing formal equality for “the sisterhood.” Here, feminists are criticized for a myopic focus on gender as the primary source of oppression, leaving them unresponsive to other relations of power.

Feminist legal theory is not immune to these criticisms. Feminist legal scholars and practitioners are frequently accused of simply adding the category of “women” into the existing legal framework, effectively replacing the voice of the objective, rational man with that of an objective, rational (white, straight, middle class) woman who claims to speak for all.[3] The experiences of women who do not fit this normative framework are ignored, the women themselves betrayed, and ultimately unmoved by the pleas of feminist legal theorists to join the cause.[4]

Yet feminist legal theory has transformative potential. Feminist legal scholars work to destabilize presumed impartiality in applying the law, drawing attention to the barriers women continue to face.[5] And as legal professionals, feminists are best positioned to shift the culture of legal practice, and to address systemic discrimination and poor representation both within the profession, and with respect to the society the profession serves.[6]

In a very real sense, then, the quotation by Angela Harris is confounding. Three key questions emerge. First, why are feminist legal theorists drawn to what Harris refers to as the second voice? Second, whose voices are ignored when the second voice speaks loudly, and why does this matter? And third, is it necessary to distill a unitary “women’s experience,” or can we accommodate difference while moving forward as distinctly feminist legal theorists and practitioners?

Why are some feminist legal theorists drawn to the second voice?

 The second voice is the abstract voice of objectivity that animates our allegedly impartial legal system.[7] Feminists have challenged the ability of this voice to speak for women, but rather than unpacking assumptions about objectivity in the law, this challenge has often amounted to simply replacing the objective male voice with an objective female.[8] The power of this voice comes from the compelling arguments that it can advance, arguments that demand better representation or equal rights for women. While rhetorically useful, these arguments generally result in formal, rather than substantive equality gains because they are practically divorced from real women’s lives. The female second voice is also intimately tied to gender essentialism, the idea that there is a universal women’s experience with oppression, and that this experience can be understood independently of other social relations of power.[9] Arguably, not all gender essentialism inevitably requires the permanent transcending of difference; however, unquestioned, self-protecting gender essentialism is highly problematic.[10] Without being open about the categories we are strategically employing, without critically examining all relationships of power, and the points at which they intersect, it is easy to frame white, middle class women’s experience as objective truth, and thus to speak with the second voice.

Who is ignored by the second voice, and why does this matter?

Relying on the second voice ignores the lived realities of the vast majority of women, severely limiting the transformative potential of feminist legal theory. Insisting on an objective knowledge based on a shared experience of gendered oppression, “perpetuates the visibility of only certain women” in the legal framework, silencing those who do not fit the norm.[11] For example, in discussions concerning systemic violence against women, the stories of non-white, poor, or transgender women are often not heard, even though these women are more likely to experience gendered violence.[12] Similarly, mainstream conversations about rape culture say little about the unique effect of rape culture on the lives of Indigenous women.[13] As well, focusing on gender as distinct from other relationships perpetuates a legal fiction tied to the idea that it is possible to compartmentalize the multiple oppressions women are experiencing. Yet women do not experience their categories of identity separately.[14] Indeed, there is a compounding effect to these multiple intersecting oppressions, which can further marginalize women.[15] Finally, relying on an objective women’s voice precludes the possibility of substantively changing the current legal system. It is impossible, for instance, to appropriately address bias in legal processes and legal decision-making without understanding the multiple intersecting relations of power and privilege that impact all actors within the justice system.[16]

Do we need a unified women’s experience, or can we proceed with difference?

In order to realize the transformative potential of feminist legal theory, I suggest we move away from the voice of the objective universal woman, and instead look to an intersectional ethic based on a principle of relationality. At first glance, it may be difficult to see how feminist legal theory can recognize difference, and yet remain committed to making the legal system more responsive to the needs of women. Indeed, one criticism of intersectionality is that in emphasizing difference, it dilutes the feminist movement.[17] However, when we start to imagine the differences as enriching, rather then impeding our efforts, we turn these differences into strengths.[18] An intersectional ethic, supported by a relational ontology, identifies the different relationships of power and privilege in women’s lives. This ethical perspective then asks feminist legal theorists to consider the nature of these connections, their impact, and how we can use our knowledge of these connections to promote relationships marked by respect and dignity.[19] For example, acknowledging the different relationships that shape and impact women helps to reveal assumptions made in legal decision-making, and subsequently helps feminists to destabilize the idea of the law as impartial. Overall, a better understanding of these intersecting relationships of power and privilege helps feminists to build a better justice system, one that is genuinely relevant to the lives of the women it purports to serve.[20]

[1] Angela P Harris, “Race and Essentialism in Legal Theory,” Stanford Law Review, 42: 581 at 587.

[2] CBC, “The F Word: Who Wants to be a Feminist?” CBC Doc Zone, original airdate: March 2, 2011.

[3] Supra note 1at 588; see also Trina Grillo, “Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality: Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House” (1995) 10 Berkeley Women’s LJ 16-30.

[4]Tracey Lindberg, “Not My Sister: What Feminists Can Learn about Sisterhood from Indigenous Women” (2004) 16 CJWL at 345.

[5] Susan B Boyd, “Spaces and Challenges: Feminism in Legal Academia,” in National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL), The Gender and the Law Manual: An Introductory Handbook for Law Students (Ottawa: The National Association of Women and the Law Charitable Trust for Research and Education, 2011).

[6] Rosemary Cairns Way, “Reconceptualizing Professional Responsibility: Incorporating Equality,” National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL), The Gender and the Law Manual: An Introductory Handbook for Law Students (Ottawa: The National Association of Women and the Law Charitable Trust for Research and Education, 2011).

[7] Nagire Naffine, “Blind Justice” in T. Brettel Dawson, ed, Women, Law and Social

Change, 5th ed (Concord: Captus Press, 2009) 57-65.

[8] Supra note 1 at 588.

[9] Trina Grillo, “Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality: Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House” (1995) 10 Berkeley Women’s LJ at 19.

[10] Ibid at 21.

[11] T. Brettel Dawson, “Feminist Legal Studies: A Primer” in T. Brettel Dawson, ed, Women, Law and Social Change, 5th ed (Concord: Captus Press, 2009) at 89.

[12] Jarune Uwujaren & Jamie Utt, “Why Our Feminism Must be Intersectional (and 3 Ways to Practice It)” everyday feminism (11 January 2015) online:

[13] Sherene H Razack, “Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George” (2000) 15 Can J L & Soc 91-130.

[14] Patricia Monture, “Standing Against Canadian Law: Naming Omissions of Race, Culture, and Gender” in Elizabeth Comack, ed., Locating Law: Race/Class/Gender/Sexuality Connections (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2006) 73-93.

[15] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “The Urgency of Intersectionality,” TED talk, online: <;.

[16] Lorne Sossin, “Should Canada have a Representative Supreme Court” (Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, School of Policy Studies, Working Paper, 2009) at 4.

[17] Supra note 12.

[18] Supra note 10 at 28; see also Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” in Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1984) at 111.

[19] Jennifer J. Llewellyn, “Restorative Justice: Thinking Relationally About Justice,” National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL), The Gender and the Law Manual: An Introductory Handbook for Law Students (Ottawa: The National Association of Women and the Law Charitable Trust for Research and Education, 2011).

[20] Ibid.

The Dead Hand of Coverture: Property, Gender, and Autonomy in Modern Society

Vanessa Carment
JD Candidate, 2019

Coverture is an historical common law doctrine restricting female property rights.[1] Though coverture laws were repealed in the 20th century, their patriarchal and oppressive influence persists. Coverture is entrenched in two arguments that belittle female autonomy. The first is that female biology makes women “unfit for tasks of public importance,” including decision-making regarding the treatment of their own bodies.[2] The second argument is that women are unfit for positions of power because they are morally pure and delicate.[3] These arguments remain the ideological basis of modern property-based feminist issues, including abortion rights and married women taking their husband’s name.

Historically, coverture changed a woman’s legal status after marriage so the husband and wife became one legal person.[4] Essentially, the wife came under the ‘cover’ of her husband.[5] Coverture had a particularly negative effect on women’s property rights. Property ownership and autonomy are deeply connected, and coverture was borne out of a patriarchal system that controlled and oppressed women by regulating property.[6]

Regulation of women’s bodies is at the core of the abortion debate, which turns on whether a woman is capable of deciding what should happen to her body while she is pregnant. While pro-choice advocates argue that women should retain autonomy over their physical health, anti-choice arguments are deeply rooted in coverture ideology, suggesting that “womanhood [is] a lesser state that lacks the ability to reason and make competent decisions.”[7] Coverture stripped women of their legal autonomy by taking away their property rights; anti-choice advocates take away women’s rights to control their bodies by relying on out-dated falsehoods about women’s capacity to make decisions.

In addition, coverture forms the ideological basis of surname change in marriage. Previously, coverture merged the husband and wife into one, stripping the woman of her individual property rights. Taking the husband’s name symbolized the merger.[8] Even though legally binding coverture has been repealed, this element of the institution of marriage remains for many couples. Lou Heinrich describes how taking one’s husband’s name is a “patriarchal, male-centric tradition whose history is rooted in possession and control.”[9] The underlying purpose of changing one’s name and its continued prevalence makes it a modern feminist issue, which demonstrates the lasting effect of coverture in Western society.

The continued impact of coverture is a feminist issue that cannot be overlooked simply because the black letter laws were repealed. Being aware of legal history is essential to understanding modern feminist legal issues. Property, gender, and autonomy are deeply interconnected and influenced by history. Now more than ever, society must be critical of how the dead hand of coverture continues to restrict female autonomy in modern society.

[1] Due to the space constraints of this blog post, I will only be addressing these issues in the context of heterosexual relationships. However, the effect of coverture reaches into the LGBTQ context and deserves academic exploration.

[2] Joan Hoff, “American Women and the Lingering Implications of Coverture” (2007) 44 Social Science J 41 at 44.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Karen Pearlston, Law of Coverture (Faculty of Law, University of New Brunswick, October 26, 2016).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lou Heinrich, “Name Calling: Coverture in a Feminist Age” (2015) 20 Kill Your Darlings 81 at 84. [Henrich]

[7] Maggie Cheu, “Now and Then: How Coverture Ideology Informs the Rhetoric of Abortion” (2012) 22 Tex J Women & L 114 at 114.

[8] Heinrich, supra note 2 at 84.

[9] Ibid at 83.

Professor of the Month: Jane Bailey

Each month, we feature a professor from the Faculty who supports and contributes to feminist legal thought.

Bailey Photo 3

Jane Bailey
Full Professor
Interviewed by: Ida Mahmoudi

IM: What was your first job ever?

JB: My first job ever?! My first job ever…my parents loved to renovate houses and they employed me in the summer to paint.

IM: Amazing! And what was your favourite thing about that job?

JB: That it was creative!

IM:  You’ve obviously come a long way. How exactly did you become a professor? We know you were a litigator for 6 years and then pursued an LLM. How did you know that being a professor was the right “fit” for you?

JB: When I went to law school, I always thought I’d be a law professor. Some students I felt were not as kind as they could be to professors who never practiced, so I would defend against that by practicing for 3 years. I went into practice and was a litigator at Torys. I stayed there for over 6 years because I really loved it, beyond what I expected. Then things started to change in my life and I met up with a friend who reminded me, “Hey, what ever happened to your 3-year plan?” I thought, “Yeah! What ever DID happen?”

At the time, I was working on an Internet hate speech case. A lot of issues around hate on the Internet, and regulation of speech online had arisen, and they weren’t necessarily the kind of issues that were relevant to the litigation, or that had to be dealt with in the litigation. I then realized I had a project for graduate school. I did my Masters at the University of Toronto, focusing on the regulation of Internet hate speech, and came for an interview here at uOttawa. I met Ian Kerr and the rest is history once you meet Ian Kerr…so here I am! One of my friends from practice told me that she was glad to see me “returning to the mothership.” So yeah! I feel like I belong here, but I really value what happened in my practice and some of my best friends are still my friends from practice.

IM: What has been the biggest challenge when conducting your research about women’s rights online? What’s really struck you about this field?

JB: I think what strikes me most about anything dealing with women’s rights is the abject frustration I feel about the constant repetition of the same kinds of attacks on women, attacks on their sexuality, attacks on their autonomy, no matter the medium, no matter the era. All of these restrictions, and how they can self-represent, and what they’re allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do, and so to see patterns repeating time and again historically is a serious challenge. I also worry that there has been a lot of ink spilled as between feminists and we haven’t necessarily capitalized on all of the work that’s been done historically. So those would be the challenges I think.

IM: Absolutely. On a happier note, what is the best thing about being a professor at uOttawa?

JB: There are so many good things about being a professor here. I mean I’m so proud of what a social justice profile we’ve built in this Faculty. My colleagues are absolutely unbelievable people, brilliant people doing such a wide variety of amazing things, and of course we, I think in part thanks to this reputation we’ve built, attract these amazing social justice oriented students, which gives you a really positive feeling about the future of the legal profession.

IM: And…what about your free time?!

JB: Free time! So in my free time, I’m a freelance taxi driver for my two daughters, and you know what?  I don’t even mind that. They’re teenagers, so their lives are starting to take off in terms of independence, so facilitating that is a pure joy of mine. Other than that, I like to cook and I LOVE watching food TV…and doing yoga of course! Hot yoga.

IM: Last but not least, if you had one piece of advice for incoming or current law students what would it be?

JB: Don’t let go of who you are. Bring who you are and everything you know to the study and practice of law. Even when you feel like sometimes it’s not relevant, be assured that it is. It’s this rich diversity of perspectives that I think is the key to making social justice change.










The Complications of Consent in Pre-Existing Relationships

Laura Thistle
JD Candidate, 2020    

Sexual assault cases cause controversy and tension for the Canadian justice system. The common argument is that the system does not provide justice for victims of sexual assault. The real challenge lies in understanding the circumstances surrounding the crime of sexual assault – namely, how often the crime is committed by an individual known to the victim, and the psychological implications this has for those involved.

Earlier this year I had the chance to speak with Professor Woolley of the University of Calgary, author of the recent ABlawg article “Defending Rapists.”[1] Woolley pointed out that in sexual assault cases, there is often no dispute about whether or not sex occurred – it is a question of consent. That the circumstances surrounding the act are in question means testimony of the parties involved is carefully scrutinized.

Stemming from this scrutiny, there is often vehement disagreement from the public over what the verdict of particular sexual assault cases should be, and whether or not victims are treated fairly. Canada’s sexual assault legislation was overhauled in 1982 to account for historical injustices, but problems persist. Last fall, for instance, it came to light that Alberta Justice Robin Camp presided over a 2014 sexual assault trial and drew on numerous disrespectful assumptions and questions while addressing the victim.[2] Clearly, although steps have been taken to treat victims of sexual assault more fairly, significant tension still exists.

Some of this this tension can be directly linked to the high frequency with which someone the victim knows commits the sexual assault. According to Statistics Canada, 87% of police reported sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.[3] It is therefore unsurprising that less than 10% of sexual assaults are reported to the police – strikingly fewer than other violent offences such as robbery (47%) and physical assault (40%).[4],[5]

When someone known to the victim commits the sexual assault, the victim faces the personal conflict of whether to report the crime at all. Relationships are jeopardized, and families may be torn apart. Furthermore, when bringing a case forward, the presence of a pre-existing relationship between the perpetrator and the victim can cause authorities involved to question the lack of consent. The testimony can become clouded by the presence of a prior relationship with the accused perpetrator – particularly if that prior relationship was a romantic one.

If someone expresses consent once, it is not automatically granted at every future juncture. Similarly, just because trust exists between two people, that does not imply sexual consent. Chief Justice McLachlin set forth the proper understanding of consent in her R. v. J.A. 2011 SCC 28 ruling. She stated, “The legislation requires ongoing, conscious consent […] to ensure that individuals engaging in sexual activity are capable of asking their partners to stop at any point.”[6] However, later judgments have failed to take this principle into account. For example, in R. v. H.E. 2017 ONSC 4277, Justice Robert Smith dismissed the accused’s sexual assault charges. This acquittal was despite accepting that the accused had sex with his wife on many occasions without her consent.[7] He pointed to the fact that he believed he had a right to do so as reason to doubt his mens rea.[8]

Why was ignorance of the law an acceptable defence in this instance, when we know from R v. Jorgensen that ignorance in the law is no defence?[9] I argue that it is due to deep assumptions about consent stemming from pre-existing relationships, and that somehow trust implies ongoing consent. I would further suggest that these erroneous assumptions are often unconscious; few would say they truly believe that the existence of a past relationship implies future consent. Nevertheless, it appears that it is easier to believe that a stranger would disrespect a person’s agency in such an intensely invasive way than to believe that a friend – or worse, a partner – would do the same.

In order for this misconception to be properly addressed within the justice system, everyone needs to have a clear understanding of the difference between pre-existing trust and situational consent. Judges and juries need to be aware of the fact that the existence of a trusting relationship does not preclude the possibility of a lack of situational consent. Similarly, police officers responding to sexual assault allegations must refrain from assuming that cases are unfounded because of pre-existing relationships. Sensitivity training already exists for front-line officers who respond to these sorts of cases, but a better understanding of the psychological implications of a pre-existing relationship between victim and assaulter is vital in order for this training to be effective.


[1] Alice Wooley, “Defending Rapists” (30 December 2016) ABlawg (blog), online: <;.

[2] Sean Fine, “The Robin Camp transcript: ‘…keep your knees together’ and other key passages” (9 September 2016) The Globe and Mail, online: <>.

[3] Cristine Rotenberg, “Police-reported sexual assaults in Canada, 2009-2014: A Statistical Profile” (3 October 2017) Statistics Canada, online: <>.

[4] Craig Desson, “What Happens When Someone is Sexually Assaulted? Statistics Canada Says Few Convictions” (5 December 2014) The Toronto Star, online: <>.

[5] Statistics Canada, “Trends in Sexual Offences” (12 February 2013) Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics Profile Series, online: <>.

[6] R v JA, 2011 SCC 28 at 3, [2011] 2 SCR 440.

[7] R v HE, 2017 ONSC 4277 at 16.

[8] Ibid at 16.

[9] R v Jorgensen [1995] 4 SCR 55 at 16, 129 DLR (4th) 510.

Issues Surrounding Surrogacy: A Call for Repairs in the Legal Environment

Maja Petrovic
JD Candidate, 2019

The November 2016 Shirley Greenberg lecture, Reproductive Labour: Reflections on the Law and Policy of Surrogacy, addressed a major issue in property law, namely surrogacy and proprietary interests within the body. The lecture highlighted two key concerns in relation to surrogacy: bodily exploitation and commodification. The speakers of the panel, Professor Bronwyn Parry, Erin Lepine, and Pam MacEachern touched on a number of key points for consideration.

The Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHRA)[1] is the main piece of legislation on this topic; however, its enforcement has been minimal. In particular, sections 6 and 12, which speak to the practice of surrogacy, are poorly enforced and are currently under revision. I suggest that this uncertain legal environment has contributed to the problems of bodily exploitation and commodification in surrogacy practices. A sound legislative scheme, with proper enforcement and regulation mechanisms, is crucial to addressing these concerns.

Exploitation of Women

In the lecture, Erin Lepine and Pam MacEachern explained how exploitation is inherent in commercial surrogacy, particularly through the use of surrogacy agreements. These agreements are extremely restrictive, with potential constrictions on a woman’s diet, exercise, and general lifestyle choices. Surrogate mothers are at risk of severe penalization if there is a breach of contract. Additionally, surrogate mothers often receive minimal compensation, while fertility clinics accumulate significant wealth.

However, Professor Parry argued that “selling access to one’s reproductive capacities” through surrogacy is not “inherently exploitive,” and should not be illegal. Parry’s arguments mirror those of Richard Arneson, who in his article “Commodification and Commercial Surrogacy,” argues that the case against commercial surrogacy is not strong enough to show that it is “socially harmful.”[2] Arneson concludes that a complete ban of commercial surrogacy is unwarranted.[3] Parry admitted, however, that the lack of legal enforcement, and the absence of regulations have given rise to undue exploitation.

Commodification of the Body

Parry also argued that surrogacy is not entirely distinct from other forms of “clinical labour” that are deemed acceptable in society.  She analogized surrogacy with modern-day purchasing of services, such as nursing, or day care, which essentially commodify “affective care.”

However when it comes to surrogacy, the specific concern is with the potential for commodifying the body. Lepine and MacEachern suggested that surrogacy is founded on the notion of framing the body as an object, and reproduction as a skill that can be paid for. Similarly, David Snow argues that surrogacy frames women as “objects of use” and treats babies as “objects to be purchased and sold.”[4] Genevieve Plaster points to arguments made by “Stop Surrogacy Now” (SSN) that surrogacy frames children as “objects of contract,” making commercial surrogacy “indistinguishable from the buying and selling of children.”[5] Commodification of the body is particularly problematic because it infringes on our existing social and moral values, which uphold the dignity and sanctity of the human body, as suggested by Mosk J in Moore v Regents of University of California.[6]

A broader issue echoes in this discussion: should our bodies be considered legal property? In Our Bodies, Whose Property? Anne Phillips suggests that associating the body with property essentially diminishes our bodies’ moral significance to our persona, and allows us to think of our bodies as marketable resources.[7]

Perhaps the real challenge is answering the following: how can the law allow for surrogacy without implicitly allowing for the commodification of women’s bodies, and framing the human body as “property?” It seems that whether surrogacy is altruistic or commercial, the ultimate result is commodification. However, to add some food for thought: if someone is engaging in a practice for all of the “right” reasons (i.e. altruistic surrogacy or organ donation), does that make commodification of the body in those circumstances less problematic? Is there room in the law to allow for practices that inherently frame our bodies as commodities in cases where it is socially, morally, and ethically acceptable?

Parliament and Health Canada ought to work together to establish an effective piece of legislation that addresses the discussed concerns, given the evident flaws within the existing legal environment. Perhaps the best results will come from considering the interests of those who appreciate the benefits of surrogacy, while limiting opportunities for the practice to cross society’s moral boundaries.

[1] Assisted Human Reproduction Act, SC 2004, c 2.

[2] Richard J Arneson, “Commodification and Commercial Surrogacy” (1992) 21(2) Philosophy & Public Affairs 132 at 164.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David Snow, “Criminalising Commercial Surrogacy in Canada and Australia: the political construction of ‘national consensus’” (2016) 51(1) Australian J Political Science 1 at 3.

[5] Genevieve Plaster, “Surrogacy: The Commodification of Motherhood and Human Life” (1 June 2015) Charlotte Lozier Institute, online: <>.

[6] Moore v Regents of University of California, 51 Cal (3d) 120 at 167 (1990).

[7] Anne Phillips, Our Bodies, Whose Property? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

Water: Life Giving, Spirit Fulfilling

Victoria Kayal
JD Candidate, 2019

Western culture recognises water as necessary for physical survival; its value is tied to its physiological benefits. Water in many Indigenous cultures[1] holds additional cultural and spiritual significance.[2] Last year I was given the opportunity to attend a listening circle with four Indigenous women concerning the role that water plays in their culture.[3] It was an eventful evening, and not only because my friend nearly got run over crossing the street outside of the community centre.

The Earth is said to be a woman. In this way it is understood that woman preceded man on the Earth. She is called Mother Earth because from her come all living things. Water is her lifeblood. It flows through her, nourishes her, and purifies her” – Benton-Banai, 1988[4]

In many Indigenous cultures, women have a special relationship with the Earth. Mother Earth is the mother of all, including water and people. Women are linked to Mother Earth as they too give life, carrying their children in water for nine months. Every person is born from water, but women in particular are inextricably linked to it. This has led to a heightened cultural responsibility for women to care for and respect water.

In the circle, Elder Saysewahum said that the stories she was telling are not hers; they are her mother’s, aunts’, grandmothers’, and so forth. The teachings she learned as a child are what she has passed on to her children. Women keep the knowledge of water—this role is unique, and active.[5] It encompasses a culturally holistic understanding of the role that water plays both physically and spiritually to the community.[6]

Having no access to clean, safe drinking water is unacceptably common in Indigenous communities across Canada. The federal government passed The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act in 2013. The Act has been criticised for failing to acknowledge the role of Indigenous women in water maintenance, and for ignoring women in the decision-making process.[7] Recognition of women’s powerful relationship with water is lowered the more centralised decision-making becomes, and the more removed it is from Indigenous communities. We should be past the point where it is acceptable to bar Indigenous women from the discussion table.

Where Canadian property law is grounded in concepts of personal ownership, and resource management is inherently tied to power relations, Indigenous laws are grounded in their cultural history. The laws are real because they cannot be changed. Women and water are tied together; it has been this way since the beginning, and it will continue into the future.

It would be easy to create a chart that highlights the dichotomy between Aboriginal and Western cultures, but painting the situation as a clash of cultural values just encourages a system that already ignores the needs of Indigenous people. There are clear cultural differences, but they are not irreconcilable.

At the circle, Caitlin said, “young people today are fighting different battles than our ancestors, but we are fighting for the same reason: to maintain our way of life.” The common law tends to insist on removing the agency of Indigenous women. It is my role to work to oppose this, in whatever way I am told is helpful.

Further reading[8]

Idle No More:

Aboriginal Water Crisis:

Woman and Water: Collection of Oral Histories:

[1] “Indigenous culture” is a generalisation that I am using to refer more succinctly to the collective beliefs of distinct Aboriginal groups. The women who participated in the circle, as well as the stories I read in my research, are all from different aboriginal groups. The importance of women and water appears to be common amongst many different Aboriginal groups, although I would not claim to know if it was across all.

[2] Michael Blackstock, “Water: A First Nations’ spiritual and ecological perspective” (2001) 1:1 BC J Ecosystems & Management, 1.

[3] Circle Speakers: Elder Juliette McAdam Saysewahum, Big River First Nation; Janice Makokis, Saddle Law Cree Nation; Cynthia Tomlinson, Lubicon Lake Nation; Caitlin, 3rd year student in the English Common Law program.

[4] Cited in Deborah McGregor, “Traditional Knowledge: Considerations of Protecting Water in Ontario” (2012) 3:3 Intl Indigenous Policy J 1.

[5] Natasha J Szach, Keepers of the Water: Exploring Anishinaabe and Métis Women’s Knowledge of Water and Participation in Water Governance in Kenora, Ontario (MNRM, University of Manitoba, 2013) [unpublished].

[6] Kim Anderson, “Aboriginal Women, Water and Health: Reflections from Eleven First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Grandmothers” Paper Commissioned by Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health & Prairie Women’s Health Centre for Excellence, online: <;.

[7] Supra note 6.

[8] Indigenous cultures are largely based on oral histories. The majority of sources listed above are a collection of oral histories, as was the circle that I participated in.

Professor of the Month: Angela Cameron

Each month, we feature a professor from the Faculty who supports and contributes to feminist legal thought.


Angela Cameron
Associate Professor
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.