Archived Content

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or record-keeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.

Constance Backhouse

SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research

SSHRC Gold Meda Winner Constance Backhouse  

“In legal history, every time you are able to demonstrate that a law was unfair, the next generation of lawyers and judges take that and use it to make different arguments and different judicial decisions. It helps move us closer to becoming a truly just society.”

Winner of the 2011 SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research, Constance Backhouse began her research career more than 30 years ago with a quest to uncover Canada’s heroines. Since then her work has reached beyond academia to illuminate forgotten stories of Canadian women and men who stood up in court to fight against gender and racial inequality.

It began with her law degree at Harvard University, where her supervisor suggested that she capitalize on her passion for feminist issues by studying the legal history of women. “I thought, ok, I’ll study the history of women in the US,” she remembers. “But he said, ‘You’re Canadian, aren’t you? You should study Canadian women.’ It was a bit of a revelation for me. At the time, I believed that Canada wasn’t really a legitimate research topic, so I had never even considered it before.”

Luckily, times have changed—a change driven in part by Backhouse’s imaginative research, engaging writing style and insistence on bringing heroic stories of women in the Canadian justice system into the public consciousness. Her 1991 book, Petticoats and Prejudice: Women and Law in Nineteenth-Century Canada, became the first and only Canadian book to win the James Willard Hurst Prize from the US-based Law and Society Association. In 2009, she became the first non-American historian to be elected president of the American Society for Legal History.

At home, her work has been recognized with numerous awards and distinctions, including SSHRC’s Bora Laskin National Fellowship in Human Rights Research, and the Jules and Gabrielle Léger Fellowship. She is the first and only woman to receive the Canadian Bar Association’s Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Law. She has also received a Killam Prize, a Trudeau Fellowship, the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario for her innovative and often controversial works.

In 1979, The Secret Oppression, a book co-authored with Leah Cohen, took on sexual harassment in the workplace—a topic that was largely taboo at the time. Her 2008 book on sexual assault law in Canada won the Canadian Law and Society Association Prize for its careful exploration of the prejudices that existed in legal cases involving violence against women. In 1999, Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada uncovered hidden stories of racism and heroism, such as that of Canada’s own “Rosa Parks”—a beautician named Viola Desmond who was arrested for sitting in the “white” seats at a Halifax movie theatre in 1946. Backhouse’s research, which focuses on the experiences of regular Canadians within the justice system, has inspired novels, documentaries and films on the people and issues she brings to light.

“In the legal records, you find people who, otherwise, would never have been written about,” she says. “I get mesmerized by those who have come into Canadian courtrooms. So many of them stood up and argued for more equality—and lost, but their voices made it into the record. I feel I have to do their stories justice.”

Her expertise also led her to serve as a mediator and adjudicator of human rights complaints, and an expert witness for cases involving violence against women and children. She has also served as an adjudicator for compensation claims involving children at state-run and church-run institutions.