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Muriel St. John Research Award for Women’s Legal Issues

September 14, 2017 — 

“The most important aspect of the award is that I know these women who have won the award will be interested in women’s issues in the future and will support women in the future.  We need women to understand women’s issues so that change can take place to move forward to equality.” – Muriel St. John

Each year since her retirement in 2011, Muriel St. John has provided $500 to be awarded to a J.D. student at the University of Manitoba to encourage research into legal issues pertaining to women, social justice and societal rights. Criteria for the award are found on the Robson Hall website.

The former Law Research Librarian at Robson Hall’s E.K. Williams Law Library for 12 years, St. John showed students how to conduct legal research using the various databases and research tools available at the library. Beyond Robson Hall, she assisted professors and students from other faculties due to the interdisciplinary aspects of the law.

St. John determined to establish the award after having seen a cross-section of topics in law where women’s issues were considered, such as Gender and the Law, Human Rights Law, Aboriginal Law, Children and the Law, Access to Justice and so on. “Over the years, having lived this long, experiencing life and having worked in the legal field for 40 years, I could see the inequalities of women in our society,” she explained. “I could see how we need to change attitudes towards women in society, which is a long journey. I could also see how women need to support women in order to move forward to make changes for women. Changes have been made but there is still a long way to go.”

Katherine Kidder, currently starting her third year of Law at Robson Hall, won the 2017 Muriel St. John Research Award for Women’s Legal Issues for her paper ““Hard Pressed to Find Those Charges”: Winnipeg Defence Lawyers’ Observations on the Implementation of the Amendments to Canada’s Prostitution Laws.”

While the criteria advise that eligible students submit research papers pertaining to women’s legal issues in any J.D. course with content related to the above-mentioned issues, the award is also open to students like Kidder who submit papers arising from independent study.

Kidder’s paper arose out of having worked after her first year of law as a summer research assistant for Professor Karen Busby on a project providing information about Canada’s new criminal sex work laws for a community organization that supports individuals involved in sex work. “Although there is quite a bit of research dedicated to examining the criminalization of sex work,” Kidder observed, “we found that little research had been done on who is being charged and convicted for sex work related offences since the new laws were enacted, and whether parties involved faced other forms of police scrutiny.”

In an effort to answer this question, Kidder explained that she and and Busby thought that “by interviewing defence counsel – who have unique insight into the criminal charges and convictions that they and their colleagues encounter – we could investigate how these new laws were operating on the ground.”

The resulting paper examines the implementation and enforcement of the 2014 amendments to Canada’s sex work laws, enacted in response to the 2013 Supreme Court of Canada Bedford decision. These legal reforms were premised on the notion that all sex work is exploitative, with sex workers as inherent victims – disregarding any notion of sex worker agency. As such, the new laws and related policies aim to protect sex workers from criminal prosecution, and target purchasers and third parties who profit from sex work. However, many offences remain that make sellers of sexual services vulnerable to criminal prosecution. The paper examines whether these new laws and policies have been animating enforcement in Winnipeg.

Besides interviewing Winnipeg-based defence lawyers, Kidder also considered crime statistics reported by the Winnipeg Police Service and Statistics Canada as a point of comparison to the the number of charges observed by the study’s participants. Likewise, she examined data on sex work-related charges provided by Legal Aid Manitoba to provide additional insight into the nature of WPS enforcement patterns.

One thing Kidder learned from writing this paper was “the complexity of ethics in research.” She explained, “The ethics application process was quite involved and took a lot longer than I initially anticipated – but it really imparted on me the importance of ensuring the well-being of research participants and I learned a lot throughout the process. As a student research project,” she said, “interviewing lawyers posed fewer ethical challenges than interviewing other groups (such as sex workers) but it also provided great insight given their area of expertise. I was very impressed with the level of support I received from the lawyers I corresponded with and their interest in the subject matter.”

A major observation Kidder came away with was how ineffective the new laws and enforcement strategies were. She explained, “As I anticipated, the new laws seem to replicate much of the same harm as the old laws, despite the common observation among interviewees that purchasers (and not sex workers) are targeted more frequently by police. What was also apparent was that both sex workers and purchasers face other forms of police scrutiny that are not necessarily captured by strictly examining the number of charges laid.”

Going forward, Kidder believes her research identified “a significant need for future, collaborative research projects with the community members impacted by these legal reforms,” she said, adding, “Their direction and inclusion is necessary to gain a full picture of the impact of the new laws “on the ground” and to ensure that the most important voices are heard.”

Kidder added that she and Busby intend to continue developing the paper for publication.

Some of the previous winning research topics for the Muriel St. John award have included: Bill 94 Unveiled: Reasonable Accommodation and the Niqab in Quebec; Aboriginal Women: Restoring Gender Balance; Her Sex Clearly Visible Throughout: The Canadian Judicial Council’s Inquiry into the Conduct of Associate Chief Justice Lori Douglas; Human Trafficking in Canada: Failing the Victims; How Old is Gender? An Exploration of the Laws and Practices Surrounding Consent and the Medical Treatment of Transgender Youth; Hard Pressed to Find Those Charges: Winnipeg Defence Lawyers’ Observations on the Implementation of the 2014 Amendments to Canada’s Prostitution Laws.

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