Thursday, March 5, 2015

International Women's Day 2015 celebrates the achievements of women--and those who #Make it Happen, the theme for this year. Here are four alumnae, out of the many grads around the world, who are doing just that: Juliet Guichon, Liz McIntyre, Nav K. Singh and Aneesa Walji.

Stories by Karen Gross


Juliet Guichon, SJD 1997: Children's health champion made Toronto Star back down


It wouldn't be an overstatement to describe Juliet Guichon as a lifesaver. Her tireless work advocating for young girls and access to the human papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccine has won her accolades and medals, and countless supporters and admirers across the country. HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, and the virus that causes cervical and other cancers.

Juliet Guichon

Juliet Guichon; photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Guichon couldn't foresee the turn her career would take when she earned her SJD in 1997 with a research focus on assisted reproduction. But her commitment to the rights of children has never wavered. And as an assistant professor at the University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine, challenge virtually landed on her doorstep after the Calgary's Catholic School District, along with 11 other school boards, banned the administration of the vaccine at school sites. Its reasoning: that the immunization would promote promiscuity among young girls.

"What motivated me to get involved was that I had a very dear friend who died of cervical cancer. I saw how painful and traumatic it was. And it didn't seem to me that it was consistent with any understanding of religion, that one would not take steps to prevent that if one could," says Guichon, who is herself a product of Calgary's Catholic school system. Armed with her legal background and bolstered by her colleagues at the medical school, she launched a campaign to educate the school trustees about the vaccine's proven efficacy in preventing the virus. She also reminded the trustees that legally, their responsibility was to their citizens, and not to the Catholic Church.

"I knew that elected trustees are elected by the people and they report to the people," she says. "It's not rocket science. So it was evident to me what the problem was. They were not doing their statutory duty." Over the course of almost two years, all of the school boards retracted their bans thanks to Guichon’s hard work together with a host of medical professionals. She was recognized for her meaningful work with the Canadian Medical Association's Medal of Honour for 2014, along with several other prizes acknowledging her commitment to public health, advocacy and engagement.

Recently, Guichon and her supporters waged another public battle—this time with the Toronto Star—which published a frightening, entirely anecdotal story about the HPV vaccine's "dark side." A blistering op-ed written by Guichon and a colleague ("Science shows HPV vaccine has no dark side") prompted the paper to back away from the story, and eventually, the piece was pulled from its website.

"It made me so sad," she says. "It causes a lot of disruption of busy people. And the effect can be very significant. At least one person will not get vaccinated because of this article. And who knows what the outcome for that person will be."

Guichon says she won't be blindsided again. Spurred by an increase in anti-immunization clusters and recent outbreaks of measles and meningitis, she and a group of medical colleagues are taking proactive steps. They've formed the Canadian Alliance to Support Immunization. Its aim is to promote and defend  all forms of immunization, as long as they have been demonstrated to be safe and effective.


Elizabeth McIntyre, LLB 1976: Safer workplaces for nurses--and everyone

Liz McIntyre

Liz McIntyre

If you don't recognize Liz McIntyre's name, chances are you'll recognize at least some of the cases she's worked on in more than 40 years in legal practice: the Grange Inquiry, the SARS Commission, and the Dupont Inquest, to name just a few. Since earning her LLB in 1976, McIntyre, a senior partner at the firm Cavalluzzo Shilton McIntyre Cornish, has devoted much of her career to representing women's groups, mostly in the workplace. "What I would say I'm most proud of is the work I've done on violence against women," she says.

A longtime ally of the Ontario Nurses Association, McIntyre achieved a defining moment when she represented several nurses in the Dupont inquest in 2007. Lori Dupont was a nurse at a Windsor hospital when she was brutally murdered by a physician with whom she'd been having an affair.  "The inquest raised a number of issues but one of the most important was convincing the coroner and the jury that it wasn't simply a case of domestic violence," McIntyre says. "It was something that played out in the workplace."

The case spawned a list of jury recommendations that prompted a review of Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act and a new law. Thanks to McIntyre's advocacy, violence in the workplace is now identified as an occupational hazard. Every employer in Ontario is required to have anti-violence policies in place, to run risk assessments, and to take steps to ensure everyone in the workplace is protected.  "That was a very significant outcome," she says. 

McIntyre continues to devote much of her practice to violence in the workplace. In addition to victims’ sexual harassment, her caseload includes workers who face threats in mental health institutions and correctional facilities. "Staff who work in these institutions are deserving of a workplace where they are not subject to violence," she says.  In one case before the Ontario Labour Board, a female patient in a Brockville hospital attacked several staff members and then stabbed a nurse with a pen, missing her carotid artery by a millimetre.

Among other notable cases, McIntyre represented Hazel McCallion—the legendary former mayor of Mississauga, Ontario—against a very public conflict of interest charge. The complaint was ultimately dismissed. "Representing Hazel was a real privilege," she says, calling McCallion "a great female icon."

While her own career is nowhere near over, McIntyre foresees an endless number of fascinating and worthwhile challenges awaiting the next generation of lawyers.  And here's her advice to new law graduates, especially women: "Find something that is going to last you a lifetime as a passion," she says. "Pursue it no matter what barriers you might encounter."


Nav K. Singh, JD 2000: Advocating for women, unclashing two cultures



Even as a child, Nav Singh says she behaved like a lawyer. She would take a position and back it up, arguing a case as though she was in court. But when she grew up, and planned to actually become a lawyer, she kept it a secret from all but a handful of women who were very close to her. "After I left undergrad, I didn't actually tell anyone I was going to law school," she says. "I had support from some women in my family who knew. But I basically just left undergrad and started law school, because I wasn't sure it would happen."

Nav K. Singh speaking to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne

Nav Singh (left with mic) speaks to Ontario premier, Kathleen Wynne

Singh was raised in Malton, northwest of Toronto, in what she describes as a very ethnically diverse community. A Punjabi Sikh, her family and community were tied to tradition. But her mother was trailblazer and set an early example for her young daughter. "My mom had fought to become a nurse in rural Punjab, at a time when girls had to fight to even go on to middle school," she says. "It wasn't just simple fights. She locked herself in rooms and went on hunger strikes for days to pursue an education, which is where I got my strength from. I knew how hard I would have to fight."

Since graduating law school in 2000, Singh has continued to fight—not for herself but for women and children in South Asian communities. She describes her work as a patchwork quilt: a mix of outreach, government relations and policy work, in addition to her private practice where she focuses mainly on family violence. The conflict between Western society and Sikh traditions has sadly given her a lot to work with. "It's challenging," she says. "The system is not geared to understand how our families operate. There tend to be a lot more arranged and forced marriages and people don't realize they have the option to say no."

Because Singh is very active in her community, she says people have come to trust her. Often her referrals come from relatives who suspect or have seen violence or abuse. Women are reluctant to come forward because they blame themselves, are afraid, or don't see a way out. "This is a key part of what I do," Singh says. "I try to make them understand that they may not have had a choice when they got married, but they can choose whether it goes on. They have a choice now."

And she believes she is making important inroads. Singh says because of her community involvement, she's not  viewed as someone who has parachuted in to point out what's wrong, but as a resource who is there to help. "I do believe I'm making a difference," she says. "In terms of the cases I've had and the preventive work I'm doing, the dialogue is slowly changing."


Aneesa Walji, JD 2010: This global Canadian forges pathways to democracy


You might say that Aneesa Walji is a truly global citizen even though she was born and raised in Canada. With family roots in Tanzania and India, Walji completed her last two years of high school in Hong Kong. She then earned a BA in international development studies at U of T, and worked in Sri Lanka with World University Service of Canada as a junior program officer for gender and development. By the time Walji started at the Faculty of Law in 2007, her path seemed predestined.

Aneesa Walji in Petra Jordan 

Aneesa Walji in Petra, Jordan

"I went to law school in order to equip myself with the tools to work at the intersection of law and international development," she says. And that's exactly what she's doing.  Walji lends her expertise to non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations that support elections, judicial reform and constitution-making in developing countries. Within that framework, she works to promote gender equity and gender mainstreaming. She takes what she calls a holistic approach, looking beyond the obvious debates about women's rights and focusing instead on the bigger picture.

"I think one of the things often missed is that a whole constitution itself will affect women, not just certain human rights provisions within that constitution," she says. "Women are approximately half the population and there are many ways in which our society and our laws are not gender-sensitive." As an example, she cites rights to reproductive health, which would generally affect women much more than men. A non-discrimination clause can be easily missed, she says, while feminist and women's rights advocates zero in on more attention-grabbing issues.

Since earning her JD, Walji has reached for ripe opportunities. She attended New York University and obtained an LLM in international legal studies. As a fellow with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), she relocated to Cairo. During her time there, she looked at Egypt's constitution-making process. Among the questions she sought to answer: how many women were involved in the body drafting the constitution? And what did women's participation look like in the referendum?

Now based in New York City, Walji is back in Cairo as part of an international election observation mission with the NGO Democracy International. Working as a legal expert, she is on the ground with key participants in the process. Ultimately, she says her own role is not to make change happen. It is to create a path that allows others to do it successfully.

"I'm working to support democracy promotion that other actors in their countries are leading," she says.  "I would just like to see human rights protected while democracy is being achieved."