Impact Awards
2023 Gold medal winner: David Dyzenhaus

University of Toronto professor David Dyzenhaus began his studies in law and political theory at a time when the stakes couldn’t have been higher: the heyday of the apartheid regime in his native South Africa.

At the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Dyzenhaus developed a fascination for the way in which law, even when it is used as an instrument of oppression, opens up a space for resistance and challenge. At that time in South Africa, the government had a complete grip on law. There was no written constitution with an entrenched bill of rights, and the government had a large majority in parliament and appointed the judges. It faced little resistance passing increasingly draconian racial segregation laws.

Yet, lawyers could find resources in law to make arguments to a judge contesting the application of both segregationist and national security laws, and sometimes, they were successful.

“The kind of dances lawyers can do around the law, that the law gives them the resources to do, has fascinated me ever since I first came across the phenomenon,” Dyzenhaus said.

“I was very intrigued by this idea that somehow there are resources internal to law, that make it possible for resistance to happen against oppression and discrimination—even when one has a government that is determined to use the law as both an instrument of oppression and discrimination.”

This realization was an early step on Dyzenhaus’s road to becoming a world-leading legal philosopher and author. It’s a journey SSHRC has long been part of, since first funding postdoctoral research he undertook at Queen’s University, where he got his first job—a two-year contract—after earning his doctorate at Oxford University in 1988 and coming to Canada.

“Without SSHRC, I may well never have got a tenured position in Canada,” he said.

As a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Toronto, Dyzenhaus has helped us to understand the rule of law as a commitment to a legal order that imposes a moral discipline on the state.

He has used his voice to articulate and defend the rule of law in the face of threats—notably in the years since September 11, 2001. That’s when Dyzenhaus became very interested in law in emergency situations or purported emergency situations, as countries crafted responses to international terrorism—and he wondered if those responses could be made consistent with the rule of law and a commitment to constitutional values. 

Over his career, Dyzenhaus has mentored legal scholars from around the world and influenced a wide variety of audiences through conferences and workshops about how and why law matters. Beyond Canada, he has taught in South Africa, England, Singapore, New Zealand, Hungary, Mexico and the United States. He takes pride in watching the students he has mentored go on to make their own impact on the world.

His scholarship has also had profound impacts on law and policy beyond academia, influencing courts in Canada and abroad, as well as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. More recently, a young generation of Indigenous lawyers in Canada has started to work with his contributions, seeing value in his insights for making progress, within the confines of legal argument, in the ongoing struggle to reconcile the legal and political status of First Nations with the brute fact of Canadian sovereignty.

For example, Joshua Nichols of McGill University’s Faculty of Law cited Dyzenhaus’s concept of a “grey hole” in the constitutional order when he presented on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to the Government of the Northwest Territories in 2021. A “grey hole” is Dyzenhaus’s term for a legal space in which there are some legal constraints on executive action—it is not a lawless void—but the constraints are so insubstantial that they pretty well permit government to do as it pleases. Dyzenhaus argues that this can be more dangerous than a true black hole.

Currently, Dyzenhaus is working on an overarching account of the “politics of legal space” through three new case studies: the Chinese legal order; the legal order that unites but also keeps distinct the Israeli legal order and the legal order of the Occupied Territories; and the antebellum US legal order, as exemplified in the situation of Fugitive Slaves. 

“In particular what I’m focusing on is the kinds of dilemmas that arise for human rights lawyers, trying to win victories for their clients under very stressful conditions.”

Nearly 40 years after Dyzenhaus made Canada his home, winning the SSHRC Impact Awards Gold Medal is “a huge honour” for him.

“It’s a sign of acknowledgement of recognition in my adopted country.”

About the award

The annual Impact Awards recognize the highest achievements in SSHRC-funded research, knowledge mobilization and scholarship, as well as the highest achievements resulting from a SSHRC fellowship awarded.

SSHRC’s highest honour, the prestigious Gold Medal is given to individuals whose sustained leadership, dedication and originality of thought have inspired students and colleagues alike.

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