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LEAF legal director reflects on her five years advocating for women

|Written By Aidan Macnab
LEAF legal director reflects on her five years advocating for women
Kim Stanton says the experience of sexual assault victims and violence against indigenous women entered the public consciousness much more during her time at LEAF.

Kim Stanton, former legal director for Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, has joined Goldblatt Partners LLP in Toronto.

During her five years at LEAF, Stanton’s work included fighting for abortion rights, intervening in court cases involving violence against indigenous women and other issues concerning women’s equality in Canada. In 2016, she was appointed advisor on the newly created federal advisory council on gender-based violence.

“It was an incredibly rewarding and challenging time and I just thought that it was probably time for me to be doing something a little different,” Stanton says. “I think it’s healthy for people in those roles to make way for other people to take them on and new energy to come into an organization.”

While at LEAF, Stanton says, there were two issues that entered the public consciousness to a great extent — the experience of sexual assault victims in the justice system and violence against indigenous women. These issues came to the fore with the #metoo movement and “I believe survivors” in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the Jian Ghomeshi trial, as well as the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

“Those two areas of work were a large part of my day-to-day focus,” she says.

Stanton says that an opportunity arose at Goldblatt to “really focus on indigenous rights work.”

She got to work on an aboriginal title case involving the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee.

In 2016, the James Bay Cree Nation commenced a lawsuit against the governments of Ontario and Canada to have aboriginal title over Eeyou Istchee. The Cree Nation is seeking damages of $495 million. The area in question is around 48,000 square kilometres south of James Bay and west of the border between Quebec and Ontario.

The aboriginal title claim on Eeyou Istchee, the entire territory spanning a northern portion of both Ontario and Quebec, comes after the Agreement on Cree Nation Governance, which stemmed from negotiations between various Cree First Nations and the federal government.

“It’s going to be a pretty interesting and engaging and long-standing piece of litigation. So, it’s something quite involved that I can really dig into,” Stanton says.

This effort in aid of indigenous land claims follows a time at LEAF where Stanton and the organization’s advocacy for women often involved indigenous women.

Stanton says she originally wanted to work for international human rights organizations, but, given Canada’s own record of human rights violations, it made more sense to her to stay close to home.

“Initially, I had a strong interest in doing international human rights law work and as I was sort of engaged with that, it really seemed to bring home to me how Canada really had not addressed our mass human rights violations, specifically against indigenous people,” she says.

“It felt hypocritical to be going overseas to address human rights violations without also attempting to address some at home,” she says.

Two indigenous women for whom Stanton and LEAF worked on behalf of were Cindy Gladue and Angela Cardinal.

Bradley Barton was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Cindy Gladue. Gladue was 36 when she was found dead in an Edmonton motel in 2011. She died of blood loss from a large cut inside her vagina inflicted by a sharp object.

Barton’s defence argued it was a non-culpable act of homicide and the result of consensual sexual activity. His acquittal was overturned by the Alberta Court of Appeal. LEAF and the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women gave written submissions in the appeal.

“The criminal justice system failed to treat [Gladue] with dignity and with respect as a human being,” says Stanton. “The way that she was treated is emblematic of how indigenous women have been treated in the justice system.”

In the Court of Appeal’s decision, the judges noted that LEAF and the IAAW contended that the description of Gladue as a “prostitute” and frequent referral to her as “native” were prejudicial to the jury. They said that the trial judge erred in not asking the Crown to address the relevance of referring to her as a prostitute, did not provide instructions to the jury to address the “widespread racial bias” invoked by referring to her as they did and “wrongly said a factor important to consent was that Gladue was a prostitute,” wrote the Court of Appeal judges in their decision. 

Cardinal is an indigenous woman who was taken into custody so that she would return to court to testify in the trial regarding her own sexual assault. She was detained under s. 545(1)(b) of the Criminal Code, which concerns a witness who refuses to be sworn or refuses to answer questions.

“At the preliminary inquiry, the judge remanded her into custody and she was transported to and from prison with her attacker and she was forced to testify in shackles and she was the victim,” Stanton says.

“She was homeless and what she really needed was a place to stay and a meal,” says Stanton. “So we made a submission about that one as well.”

LEAF was established in 1985, the same day s. 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect. Section 15 states that “every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

LEAF’s mandate has been to use s. 15 and s. 28, which guarantees that Charter rights be applied equally to male and female persons, to enhance equality in Canada.