Introduction: Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice and Women's Activism Ottawa

Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice and Women’s Activism, Elizabeth Sheehy, ed., University of Ottawa Press, June 2012

15 Pages Posted: 16 May 2013

See all articles by Elizabeth A. Sheehy

Elizabeth A. Sheehy

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section

Date Written: 2012


This edited collection assesses sexual assault law, legal practice, and activism in Canada as of 2009. It represents both a celebration and a review of where Jane Doe’s brave advocacy has taken us in the more than ten years that have passed since she won her case against the Toronto Police in 1998 in her litigation, Jane Doe v Metropolitan Toronto (Municipality) Commissioners of Police.

Jane Doe initiated her legal action after the first wave of feminist-inspired reform to the law of rape, which took place in 1981-82-83. Before her case went to trial, Canadian criminal law governing sexual assault underwent another wholesale reform in 1992, again led by women’s activism and informed by feminist thought. Additional, narrower reforms were enacted in 1995 in response to public outcry about the “extreme intoxication” defence used to exculpate a man who brutally raped a woman in a wheelchair, and in 1997 as a result of the widespread disclosure of women’s personal records to defence lawyers in rape trials. While Jane Doe’s legal arguments and the judg- ments rendered in her case show the impact of feminist intervention in the law governing sexual assault, they also reveal starkly that the law in practice — as implemented by police, prosecutors, and defence counsel — has quite successfully resisted women’s just demands for equal pro- tection of the law.

As the first English-language book since 1994 to assess the current state of rape law and practice in Canada, this collection aspires to present a picture of the many difficult issues that continue to plague Canadian women who attempt to report and prosecute sexual violence committed against them, even after successive waves of law reform and the ground-breaking victory achieved by Jane Doe. The chapters in this book emerged from a major conference at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, where I have taught law since 1984 and where Jane Doe has lectured regularly to law students since 1988. Together we convened, raised funds, and organized a highly successful event to celebrate International Women’s Day, on March 6th and 7th 2009, titled “Sexual Assault Law, Practice and Activism in a Post Jane Doe Era.” To do so, we established an Organizing Committee composed of ourselves and Professors Beverly Bain, Natasha Bakht, Pascale Fournier, Tracey Lindberg, and Rakhi Ruparelia. The committee reviewed proposals submitted in response to our call for papers and invited seventy speakers to present their work over the two-day event.

The presenters themselves were LLB and Masters candidates from many disciplines; researchers and professors from Law, Women’s Studies, Criminology, Legal and Justice Studies, Counselling Psychology, World Indigenous Knowledge and Research, Sociology, Political Studies, Politics, and Political Science; and community-based activists from the Violence Against Women sector. These activists, students, and academics were joined by an internationally acclaimed young artist, a celebrated author, a national journalist, and two lawyers — one who represents the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and another who was one of Jane Doe’s lawyers. The Canadian focus of the conference was exemplified by speakers from Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Quebec, and by attendance from all these provinces as well as Newfoundland and Nunavut. This national concentration was expanded by speakers from South Africa, Israel, the United States, New Zealand, and Ghana.

These seventy presenters — sixty-six women and four men — delivered papers to a standing-room only audience of over 350 students, community activists, researchers, lawyers, and academics. The conference was opened by the inspiring words of The Honourable Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, whose contributions to the development of sexual assault jurisprudence consistent with women’s equality rights have been widely acknowledged and justly celebrated. Conference speakers received at least five standing ovations and the organizers were overwhelmed by repeated calls for a biannual conference on sexual assault.

Many organizations were represented, including Springtide Resources (Women with Disabilities and Deaf Women’s Program), Parkdale Community Legal Services, Kenora Sexual Assault Centre, University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union (Victim Advocate), Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Mouvement Contre le Viol et l’Inceste (Montreal), Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa, Assaulted Women’s and Children’s Counselor Advocate Program (George Brown College), Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, African and Canadian Women’s Human Rights Project, Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres.

The event was funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario, the Ontario Women’s Directorate, the Social Sciences and Humanities Re- search Council, the Department of Justice Victims’ Fund, the Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession, the University of Ottawa (including the Common Law and Droit civil sections), the National Association of Women and the Law, Sack, Goldblatt, and the Social Justice Fund (University of Ottawa). A number of law student volunteers, including Kerry McVey and Miriam Yosovic, among others, worked tirelessly with us to guarantee a successful and celebratory event but also to welcome law students from other law schools and cre- ate space for their contributions. Not all of the excellent essays that resulted could be squeezed into this collection; special issues of Canadian Woman Studies and the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law take over where this collection signs off.

Keywords: Jane Doe, feminist-inspired reform, Canadian criminal law, extreme intoxication defence, disclosure women's personal records, rape law, report sexual violence, prosecute sexual violence, sexual assault law, sexual assault jurisprudence, women's equality rights

Suggested Citation

Sheehy, Elizabeth A., Introduction: Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice and Women's Activism Ottawa (2012). Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice and Women’s Activism, Elizabeth Sheehy, ed., University of Ottawa Press, June 2012. Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth A. Sheehy (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Street
Ottawa, K1N 6N5

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