Gender and Race in the Construction of 'Legal Professionalism': Historical Perspectives

26 Pages Posted: 4 Jun 2013

See all articles by Constance Backhouse

Constance Backhouse

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section

Date Written: October 2003


This paper was part of a conference about “legal professionalism”. The article demonstrates how the history of Canada's legal profession has been marked with power, exclusion, and dominance, rather than civility, community or collegiality. The profession has obstructed Black, Jewish, Aboriginal and female individuals from practicing law. The Law Society of Upper Canada required “gentlemanly” knowledge of the classics for admission into the profession, which privileged white upper-class men. The first Black, female and Aboriginal lawyers faced barriers to obtaining articling positions, and registering with the Law Society. Female judges were presumed unqualified for the intellectual rigour of the courtroom. Black and female judges have been challenged if it was perceived that their legal opinions were informed by their sex or race. Law schools have also been places of exclusion and disrespect for faculty members based on gender and ethnicity. Exclusion of marginalized peoples from the legal profession has impeded their access to justice. Professional uniformity has enabled racist and sexist legal arguments and judgments. The article recommends the legal profession uphold anti-racism, gender equality, and respect for Aboriginality, instead of ideals that have sustained injustice such as “collegiality”, “professionalism” and “civility”.

Keywords: legal, law, Canada, Ontario, Canada, profession, professionalism, power, oppression, discrimination, history, historical, Law Society, class, race, sex, lawyer, judge, school, prejudice, equality, equity, civility, collegial, practice, admission, privilege

Suggested Citation

Backhouse, Constance, Gender and Race in the Construction of 'Legal Professionalism': Historical Perspectives (October 2003). Available at SSRN: or

Constance Backhouse (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Street
Ottawa, K1N 6N5

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