A Quick History of Women in Canadian Law

October 3, 2022
Rosemary Bocska

Article written by Rosemary Bocska

October marks Women's History Month in Canada. [1] This is a time where we recognize the achievements of women past and present and the hard work being put in toward achieving a more inclusive future. To celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Women's History Month, this article will focus on the rise, and current role, of women in Canadian law.

Canada’s First Woman Lawyer

The legal pioneer for women was Clara Brett Martin: the first female lawyer in Canada.[2]  She began her long journey towards becoming a lawyer in the late 1800s. At the time, the Canadian government barred women from being lawyers and prohibited them from voting. (As well as from being legislators, coroners, judges or jurors.)

But Clara helped pave the way to change.  Born in 1874, Toronto’s Trinity College accepted Clara in 1888. (After graduating at age 16 with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics).   She applied for student membership with the Law Society of Upper Canada in 1891. She required this before she could embark on her mandatory articling that would entitle her to practice in law. 

Initial Rejection

After a long debate, the Law Society rejected Clara's petition.  Only “persons” were eligible to be admitted to the practice of law under the legislation that established the Law Society. This referred only to men.  An amending Bill, passed in 1892, finally redefined the word “person”. It then included both women and men, which opened the door for Clara's acceptance.

Clara commenced her articles with a Toronto law firm in 1893. Poor treatment from her fellow articling students and the legal secretaries forced Clara to switch firms. She went to a prominent Toronto law firm, one that was the predecessor to Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP.  Clara was duly called to the Ontario bar and received her LL.B. in 1899.

Clara died at the age of 49, having spearheaded a great shift in the legal landscape. One that opened the door for generations of women to come. In the modern day, just under 40 percent of all practicing lawyers in Canada are women.

Other Notable Women in Canadian Law

Clara Brett Martin took some of the first pioneering steps for women in the legal field. There have been many other noteworthy Canadian women who have followed her.[3]  Historically those lawyers have served, and continue to serve, many different roles in the legal profession.  These include lawyers, Crown counsel, judges, law professors and legal scholars, and the deans of Canadian law schools.  

Although there are far too many to choose from, here are just some of the standouts in the profession:

Beth Symes

  • Beth Symes is a Canadian lawyer who took on the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) on the issue of the deductibility of the childcare expenses. Although in the end she did not prevail in changing the law.  On her personal income tax return, she had tried to deduct “personal business expenses”. Those wages she paid to a nanny over a three-year period. She argued that the decision to hire the nanny had allowed her to focus on her career and become a partner in her law firm.  The CRA disallowed this, which position was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Beverly McLachlin

  • Until she stepped down in 2017, Beverley McLachlin was the 17th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and the longest-serving Chief Justice in Canadian history.  She also served as Deputy of the Governor General of Canada at various times, as well as the role of Administrator of Canada.  In that latter role, she gave Royal Assent to the federal Civil Marriage Act, which effectively legalized same-sex marriage in Canada. 

Louise Arbour

  • Louise Arbour is a former Justice of both the Supreme Court of Canada, and the Ontario Court of Appeal.  She then went on to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and was also the former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, and for Rwanda.  In that role, she made history in at least two respects:  1) by being the first to prosecute sexual assault under the Articles of Crimes Against Humanity; and 2) by criminally indicting a sitting head of state, Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic.

Kim Campbell

  • While her tenure was brief – lasting only a few months in 1993 – lawyer Kim Campbell served as the 19th Prime Minster of Canada. She has been the only woman to hold that post to date.

Conclusion: Women in Canadian Law

Starting back in the turn of the 19th century, women have been fearless in penetrating the legal profession.  First by being admitted to the legal profession and then by taking up the mantle to advance novel legal causes.  Some have even risen to the highest legal and political positions in the nation.

There is never a bad time to celebrate and recognize the role of women in Canadian law – but Women’s History Month in October seems like a particularly good time to do so.  

[1] Canadian celebrations and events include the International Day of the Girl (October 11) and Persons Day (October 18).  For a backgrounder and some information on this past October’s Women’s History Month and Persons Day, see the Canadian federal government website https://www.canada.ca/en/women-gender-equality/news/2018/10/womens-history-month.html

[2] According to Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clara_Brett_Martin

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_law_in_Canada