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“Our judicial system is still weighed down by myths and stereotypes about women. The concept of ‘no means no’ is still a problem.” | image: Shary Boyle

“Our judicial system is still weighed down by myths and stereotypes about women. The concept of ‘no means no’ is still a problem.” | image: Shary Boyle


the Jane Doe decade

by Moira Farr | March 25, 2009

When she was the lone female student in her law class at Laval University during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Honourable Claire L’Heureux-Dubé was barred from attending the class on rape law.

She is now 82, and retired from the Supreme Court of Canada. While there, she was influential in a number of landmark equality-rights rulings, including the controversial R. v. Ewanchuk case regarding the nature of sexual consent.

Earlier this month, L’Heureux-Dubé received a standing ovation for her no-holds-barred opening remarks at a recent conference at the University of Ottawa:

Our judicial system is still weighed down by myths and stereotypes about women. Trafficking, teenage prostitution, the murder of women are the everyday menu of our criminal courts. The use of fishing expeditions, medical records, hearsay evidence [in cases of sexual assault] abound. Sentences are disgusting. The concept of “no means no” is still a problem.

The conference that honoured L’Heureux-Dubé was called Sexual Assault Law, Practice and Activism in a Post-Jane Doe Era. It gathered feminist lawyers, students, sexual-assault survivors and activists from across Canada, the U.S., Africa and New Zealand to discuss the state of sexual-assault law in 2009, and to mark the 10th anniversary of the groundbreaking case of Jane Doe v. the Metropolitan Toronto police.

(“Jane Doe,” was raped by a stranger in her Toronto apartment, and successfully sued the police for violating her Charter rights in their handling of her case.)

The jam-packed 2-day conference agenda included discussions of:

  • aboriginal women’s issues
  • sexual assault on campus sites
  • law reform
  • policing
  • prosecuting and compensating sexual assault
  • the role of the state in racializing sexual assault
  • international law (for example in Ghana, feminist law advocates are still working to make spousal rape criminal) and
  • violence against criminalized women.

Jane Doe herself spoke about her continuing activism in the struggle to make law, law enforcement and social attitudes towards sexual assault more equitable for women. She focussed on the need for a more transparent process for issuing public warnings to women from the police.

Her book, The Story of Jane Doe: A Book about Rape, was highlighted in a humourous presentation by Rebecca Johnson and Gillian Calder, professors of law at the University of Victoria. The presentation included audience participation in Take Back The Night-style chants. (“Up Yours, Not Mine!”) This was followed by powerful words and visuals from artist Shary Boyle, who illustrated The Story of Jane Doe. In one drawing, tables are turned on a police officer, as he is draped over the hood of his cruiser and hand-cuffed by a woman.

While conference participants gave strong critiques of the current state of sexual-assault law, they also underlined how far women have come since the days when future Supreme Court judges weren’t allowed to attend certain classes, and how important it is to continue campaigning for reform.

A positive sign that such reform is taking place is the fact that today’s law professors and students are increasingly female, fundamentally changing classroom dynamics. Jane Doe regularly visits first-year law classes at the University of Ottawa. “When Jane Doe comes, it is a transformative moment,” said University of Ottawa law professor and vice-dean Daphne Gilbert. “She arrives in October, when the students have had a lot of theory. Suddenly there’s a real woman standing before them. Her victory is inspiring. There’s always a raucous response.” Gilbert was part of a panel discussion on sexual assault on campus sites. Back in the 1980s, she walked out of a law class with all her female classmates to protest the sexist attitudes of a professor.

Others on the panel pointed to the need for change in institutional attitudes toward sexual assault. Emily Rosser and Naoko Ikeda, PhD students in women’s studies at York University, were part of a student campaign to “re-orient the discourse of rape culture,” including a guerilla postering campaign around campus with the message DON’T RAPE, and an open letter to students critiquing the university and police warnings to individual women to “be vigilant,” and suggesting ways to re-script the discussion as one of community strategies to combat sexual assault.

The need for re-scripting was made clear in a presentation by Dr. Lori Sudderth of the University of Quinnipiac in Connecticut. A study on her campus revealed that incidents of “intimate violence” are severely under-reported by female students, who still fear that they will be blamed or not believed. Dr. Sudderth said that a campaign to provide peer support, greater awareness and more reporting mechanisms was having an impact on the numbers of cases reported to the university.

The Honourable Claire L’Heureux-Dubé gets the last word on the need to keep fighting for social justice in the area of sexual assault law:

There must be education at all levels – law schools, police, prosecutors and judges. They need to visit sexual-assault centres, jails, and realize the terrible consequences and costs of sexual assault to society.


  • Seasonal Feature

  • April 1994: the night raid at Kingston’s Prison for Women

    by Sierra Bacquie

    There was supposed to be a new approach to the Correctional Service of Canada’s relationship to female offenders, who were promised responsible choices, respect, dignity, supportive environments, and shared responsibility. But on the night of April 26, eight women experienced humiliation, degradation, raw fear and trauma at the hands of an all-male emergency team. How did this happen? What has changed since?  read more