Backhouse extols a future shaped by teachers

Today’s graduates, future teachers well-versed in pedagogy, will change the world for the better, Constance Backhouse, Law professor at the University of Ottawa, said.

Backhouse spoke to 738 graduates from the Faculty of Education and the School of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies at the Friday, June 15 morning session of Western’s 299th Convocation.

Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws upon Backhouse in recognition of her contributions as a Canadian legal historian, bringing to light stories of people whose legal experiences have lived buried in archives and persons who in both life and death were barred from legal vindication because of their colour, gender or class.

“I am (in) awe, among you today, experts in pedagogy and the discipline of education. I think it’s important to emphasize how much we are beholden to the expertise of the Faculty of Education that brings to those of us, who struggle to learn how to teach, so much knowledge,” said Backhouse, who shared with graduates her once less-than-stellar reputation as a professor.

A graduate of the University of Manitoba, Backhouse studied law at the Osgoode Hall Law School at the University of Toronto as well as Harvard University. She has taught law at Western and the University of Ottawa.

Throughout her career, she has been an expert witness and consultant on sexual abuse against women and children and has been an adjudicator for compensation claims that came out of sexual and psychological abuse of former inmates of the Grandview Training School for Girls as well as students of Aboriginal residential schools.

“Constance Backhouse reveals the power of people’s stories to help us see how law was experienced at various moments in Canadian history. The history she writes about is our history, and the poignant human voices she unearths from the past carry challenging messages for us. Unveiling prejudice in its more blatant form forces us to acknowledge it in our own lives, and reflect on the power of the law to make change or reinforce inequities,” said Classics professor Bonnie MacLachlan in her citation.

While a faculty member at Western Backhouse released a report in 1987 on the inequities in employment between male and female faculty. It was followed by the Chilly Climate Report, which was released in video format and viewed around the world.

In 2009, she co-founded the Feminist History Society, dedicated to compiling and publishing stories that will rescue the history of second wave Canadian feminism.

Backhouse is a Trudeau Scholar, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and was named to both the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. She was recently awarded a gold medal from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Carnal Crimes: Sexual Assault Law in Canada 1900-1975 was the winner of the Canadian Law Society Association Book Prize. Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada 1900-1950 earned her the Joseph Brant Award in 2002. The Heiress Versus the Establishment: Mrs. Campbell’s Campaign for Legal Justice was named by the Literary Review of Canada in 2004 as one of the five books most likely to become classics of their kind.

“Constance Backhouse is an educator in the broadest sense of the word. Teaching awards attest to the same lively presentation of material that she offers her readers. Her courage and activism flow seamlessly from her scholarship,” MacLachlan said.

Backhouse told graduates they are among a very special group of people who will change the world for the better.

“Teachers are the lifeblood of our future. All of us had some remarkable teachers in our lives who believed in us, who challenged us, who drew out the best in us and I often wonder why we don’t publicly recognize our great teachers for their extraordinary talents,” she said.

Backhouse added teachers deserve the highest of praises.

“If our society valued what was most important in life, it wouldn’t be the financiers, the professional athletes or the movie stars who took home the largest salaries or who were famously revered. Teachers would be at the pinnacle. Teaching would be the career that everyone aspired to.”