A piece of feminist history: Celebrating 35 years of West Coast LEAF

Lynn Smith speaking to the crowd at the 2020 Equality Breakfast.
Lynn Smith speaking to the crowd at the 2020 Equality Breakfast. Photo Credit: Johnny Liu

This month, West Coast LEAF officially turns 35 years old, which makes the organization just a year younger than me! As a fairly new member of the team (this month is also my one-year anniversary of joining the staff), I wanted to take the opportunity to learn a bit about West Coast LEAF’s history by talking to some of our founding members. After 35 years, it’s a good time to look back at where we’ve come from, as well as looking to the future to see where we want to go.

The idea for West Coast LEAF began when, in the early 1980s, in order to “patriate” the Canadian constitution, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms was proposed. Having seen that gender equality had not been a priority under the Canadian Bill of Rights, people mobilized, testified at the hearings, and succeeded in achieving wording in the Charter (sections 15 and 28) that would have the potential to bring about meaningful change in the law.

Reflecting with our Founders

“At the time, there had been some notable cases that made many of us sit up and say, ‘What just happened? This can’t be right!’ Especially as women who had gone into law school to make a difference,” remembers Fran Watters, a founding member of West Coast LEAF. “There was the Murdoch case, where a woman in Alberta who had farmed for twenty years with her male partner was denied rights to the farm assets when their relationship ended — because they had never married. There was the Stella Bliss case in which a woman was denied EI benefits when she could no longer work due to her pregnancy and the court held that she was not denied benefits because she was a woman, but because she was pregnant. There was the Lavell case in which an Indigenous woman lost her band status when she married outside the band, even though a man in her position would have retained his status — and indeed his wife would have gained band status.”

“I was one of the early feminist lawyers in Canada in the 1970s-1980s, prior to the advent of the Charter,” says Lynn Smith Q.C., a “founding mother” of West Coast LEAF. “We had made little progress in arguing for women’s equality, for example, in the Bliss case, where the Supreme Court declined to find that pregnancy discrimination is sex discrimination. I was also a feminist law professor who had been teaching Women and the Law, and was aware that the Anglo-Canadian laws and legal system were almost entirely designed by and for men, and wholly owned and operated by men.”

As the federal and provincial governments began working to bring existing legislation into conformity with the new equality rights provisions in the Charter, the idea began to form that there should be organizations who could take on the work of challenging gender-based discrimination in the law.

“The best part of my active time with LEAF [National] and West Coast LEAF was the chance to work with amazing women who were idealistic, yet so clear-eyed, about using the law as a tool for social change.”

Frances Gordon /one of the founders of West Coast LEAF

“In 1985, I was delighted to join with other feminist lawyers and activists from across the country in putting together the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund [LEAF National], and to be a founder as well of West Coast LEAF,” says Smith. “I was inspired by the idea that we might be able to forge some legal tools that would allow us to shape the law in a way that would treat women with fairness and justice. I had two daughters by the time LEAF and West Coast LEAF were founded, and was inspired by the dream that they would not have to go through the same struggles that my generation had done.”

“I was at that time a new graduate of law school and was very interested in the feminist movement generally and the politics around it,” remembers Jane Shackell Q.C., a founding member of the organization. “We thought of [West Coast LEAF] as the law firm for the women’s movement, and that was just something I really wanted to be involved in. I don’t think at the time that I truly had any appreciation for the longevity of West Coast LEAF as an organization. I was very young then and I probably thought that we would achieve our goals much more quickly! But as the years have gone by it becomes more and more clear that progress is incremental, and you have to keep working away at these issues to have an impact.”

“The best part of my active time with LEAF [National] and West Coast LEAF was the chance to work with amazing women who were idealistic, yet so clear-eyed, about using the law as a tool for social change,” says Frances Gordon, a former prosecutor who also founded West Coast LEAF. “It is heartening to recall that successful organizations can start in such a simple manner. A group of us took a ferry to Victoria to hear Beth Symes, a feminist Toronto lawyer, introduce the idea of strategic equality litigation under s.15 of the Charter. On the ferry home, the idea of West Coast LEAF took hold and after months of meetings around Professor Lynn Smith’s dining room table, a living breathing organization was born.”

“We developed a strategy,” says Watters. “We would look for cases that would test equality, cases we knew we had a good chance of winning, that would build a foundation of solid precedents for the harder cases to come (because we had seen some important, precedent-setting cases lost).”

Working with LEAF National, one of West Coast LEAF’s earliest court cases was fighting to have a section of the Yukon Change of Name Act declared invalid, which at that time prevented a woman from giving her own surname to her child; the child had to be given the name of her husband (assuming she was married).

“We found a plaintiff and we found counsel and we got ourselves in front of a judge and we won!” says Shackell. “We were absolutely thrilled. As you can imagine, having that kind of provision in a statute, which is plainly discriminatory on its face, is a very different matter from achieving a change in systemic forms of discrimination. It was what I guess you might now refer to as a ‘quick win’! But at the time it was a very significant thing to us.”

“We would work in partnership with other groups,” says Watters. “We recognized we did not own these stories and we could not speak for all women. We could help articulate, put into legal language, navigate through legal proceedings — but the stories, the solutions had be to be crafted with the groups immediately affected: the disabled, the poor, Indigenous women, women from other backgrounds (such as domestic workers), lesbian women. Out of that came the concept of consultations and new ways of articulating what women experienced: direct vs indirect discrimination, overlapping disadvantage, intersection of disadvantage.”

To raise money to support the work, the Equality Breakfast (originally the Equality Day Celebration) was born.

“The first breakfast fundraiser was held at the Law Courts Inn,” remembers Gordon. “A cozy affair. As a co-organizer, I remember being quite pleased when perhaps 75 people attended!”

“It was a lot of work, but we had a lot of fun and we made some good connections that way with other lawyers who could staff our cases and our committees and so forth,” says Shackell. “That was one of the great things that we managed to achieve in those early years. We’d go to the Breakfast and look around and go, my god there’s 400 people here! This is quite something! From a very modest beginning at the first Breakfast where we had a few dozen people it was very gratifying.”

“We didn’t have the funds to hire a photographer,” remembers Glinda Sutherland, who managed public relations for the organization. “So, I was doing all the photography. I remember I used to walk up and down and around the tables and shoot these pictures. We always dressed up and [board member] Agnes Huang said, ‘Jane Shackell and Glinda Sutherland are the best dressed women on the boards of directors in all of Vancouver!’ We used to get special outfits for it. And I remember [board member] Heather [MacFadgen] saying, it’s a wonder I could concentrate on anything for the whole Breakfast because I kept looking down at Glinda’s shoes!”

Sutherland still attends the Breakfast most years. “It feels very emotional every year. I always reflect on the women who came before and the sacrifices they made. It’s a day of reflection for me. And a wonderful opportunity to see friends.”

“I’m so pleased that I was around for the beginning,” says Darlene Marzari, who remembers meetings on her front porch in the early years of the organization. “I’m so pleased that many of my friends and my daughter have been associated now with West Coast LEAF in a major capacity. It’s been a delight to be around West Coast LEAF as it’s grown and developed and achieved maturity. It’s a piece of feminist history in Canada now. And it can only grow to greater things, as I’m sure it will.”

Looking to Our Future

West Coast LEAF has certainly evolved over the last 35 years, expanding from our roots in litigation to develop a focus on public legal education and law reform advocacy, with community collaboration being integral to our work. As we use the tools and strategies of the colonial legal system to seek transformation in the systems that oppress and harm people, we aim to bring a decolonizing, trans-inclusive, intersectional feminist lens to everything we do. Looking towards the future, I asked some staff members to reflect on the work they are doing now that most excites them.

“We’ve navigated a lot of change and uncertainty this past year and, in many respects, I’ll be happy to see 2020 in the rearview mirror!” says Executive Director Raji Mangat. “West Coast LEAF’s people keep me motivated and challenged, especially on those days when the work feels insurmountable and the pace of systemic change glacial. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with people I deeply respect and who use their considerable gifts and talents to inspire and challenge me every day. I’m excited to keep learning with and from my colleagues what it means to work with an open heart, an open mind and an appetite for reflection and renewal.”

“I was excited when West Coast LEAF announced our shift to a broader, more trans-inclusive understanding of gender discrimination back in 2018, and even more excited when we reinvented one of our longstanding law reform tools to align with our current vision,” says Alana Prochuk, Manager of Public Legal Education. “From 2009 to 2018, West Coast LEAF published a CEDAW Report Card grading BC’s compliance with the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This past year, with support from community dialogue partners at Urban Native Youth Association, the Coalition Against Trans Antagonism, and PACE Society, we created our first BC Gender Equality Report Card. It draws on knowledge shared by community groups to identify some of the real-life impacts of BC government action and inaction. And it explores inequalities based on gender identity and expression more deeply than the CEDAW Report Card ever did.”

“I had a lot of fun getting to know this past year’s cohort of volunteers and co-facilitating workshops with them,” says Cecile Afable, Youth Workshop Coordinator. “They’re such a smart, kind, and thoughtful group of people who all bring valuable perspectives to our workshops, and I learned so much from the ideas they shared during our monthly meetings. It’s so cool to be a part of a youth workshop program that’s been around for 21 years and I’m excited to see the ways that the program will continue to grow!”

“This year, I’ve been moved, challenged, and inspired by the shared learning we do through our decolonizing and gender discussion clubs, at which we share resources and learn together,” says Basya Laye, Director of Development and Engagement. “I am grateful to work in an environment in which learning is dynamic and unlearning and relearning are virtues. While we’re in an extremely challenging moment during this global pandemic, I find myself dreaming about the opportunity we’re being presented for bold and radical transformative change in our society. I’m eager to work with my colleagues and community to articulate what a more just, compassionate, and equal world could look like — and then work together to make it a reality.”

Hearing from our founders and our current staff, I am struck by the desire throughout West Coast LEAF’s history to evolve to meet emerging needs, and to reorient and reprioritize when it becomes clear that we are leaving people behind in our efforts to dismantle systems of oppression. This willingness to learn, change, and grow is without a doubt a core strength of our work.

Here’s to the next 35 years!

Cat Hart (they/them) is the Manager of Fundraising at West Coast LEAF, and has very much enjoyed listening to the reminiscings of the organization’s founders.

Questions? Comments? blog@westcoastleaf.org 

Two white women are smiling in a theatre.
Frances Gordon and Janet Kee at the Equality Day Celebration in 1992 at the Discovery Theatre. Photo Credit: Glinda Sutherland
A room with tables covered with white tablecloths is filled with people gathering to celebrate the Equality Breakfast in 1998.
Breakfast-ing at the Law Court Inns, 1998. Photo Credit: Unknown
Two white woman are wearing semi-formal clothes and smiling candidly.
Jane Shackell and Fran Watters Equality Day Celebration 1992 at Discovery Theatre. Photo Credit: Glinda Sutherland