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Andrée Lajoie

2006 SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research

Andrée Lajoie, winner of the 2006 SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research, has vivid memories of the morning of her first day at school: “My father put me on his knee and said, ‘They’re going to try to teach you all kinds of things. Just learn what you understand, and you’ll do OK.’”

Lajoie took the advice to heart, and ever since that day the Université de Montréal law professor has been trying to understand the world, probing and questioning it from, as she says, “a standpoint that’s objective, but never neutral.”

Initially, her quest drew her to journalism. Hearing this, one of her father’s friends, a newspaper editor, suggested she study law rather than literature. “Otherwise,” he warned, “you’ll end up stuck in the women’s section.” Once again she heeded the advice, going on to earn a degree in law at the Université de Montréal, and following that with a master’s in political science at Oxford. During her time in Great Britain, she worked as London correspondent for Radio-Canada’s radio service.

Then her life changed course. Her husband, a Canadian diplomat with the UN, was posted to New York, so in 1962 Lajoie gave up journalism to avoid any conflict of interest. Around the same time, Jean Beetz, one of her former professors, invited her to join the team at the Université de Montréal’s Centre de recherche en droit public (Public Law Research Centre). She is still there.

For more than 40 years, Lajoie has devoted herself to the theory of law and the study of constitutional law. Guided only by an insatiable curiosity, her studies have run the gamut from the legal structure of urban and regional health administrations, to health and education law, to the rights of Aboriginal peoples and minorities.

But although her career may seem full of twists and turns, it has always followed a single, simple impulse: “I want to understand the factors that go into the making of law,” she explains. “I try to pinpoint the ways in which society, with its dominant values, its ideologies and its social trends, influences the development of laws and their interpretation by the courts.”

Lajoie has published more than a dozen books and countless articles, and she has sat on a number of commissions that have influenced the history of Québec and Canada. Always, her contribution is to put the debate on a solid theoretical footing. Her work for the Castonguay-Nepveu commission (1968-70), for example, provided the legal basis for the organization of Quebec’s health care system. Her research on Canadian post-secondary education law enlightened the Arthurs commission on law and learning (1981-83); twenty-five years later, the Arthurs Report still influences the way law students are trained.

Her theoretical thrust is evident in her book Contrats administratifs : jalons pour une théorie (Administrative contracts: foundations for a theory), published in 1984. Her later research established the way law tends to yield to society’s dominant values. Nevertheless, she says, “some minority values are recognized in law, and I wanted to find out under what conditions that happens.” Turning her attention to the rights of social minorities, she then published two important works on the subject: Jugements de valeurs (Value judgments, 1997) and Quand les minorités font la loi (When minorities make the law, 2002).

“Minorities can influence the law,” she says,”but only to the extent their demands coincide with the interests of the majority.” Although this has begun to change, she explains, “dominant groups still tend to block anything that works against their financial and ideological interests. When the courts recognize the right of gays and lesbians to marry, for example, it clashes with the values of some groups—but not with the interests of the dominant ones. So the cost of the exercise is not very high.”

Despite a wealth of awards and an international reputation, Lajoie has no intention of resting on her laurels. She plans to use the Gold Medal grant to carry out at least one study on how research funding influences research output. “I’ve been lucky enough to have had a great deal of freedom in my own research,” she says, and she counts herself a firm believer in the value of basic, investigator-driven research. This time, she’ll be questioning people who, just like her, examine and try to understand the world.