“I write for the same reasons I practice law: to use my voice for positive change.”
In light of Person’s Day on October 18, we’re getting political with Paula Ethans, a human rights lawyer, writer, and feminist reform advocate based in Winnipeg. In this Q&A, we chat with Paula about what the iconic Person’s Case did (and didn’t) do for Canadian women, why she’s never wanted to be “just a lawyer,” and how we can use social media and personal style to create positive change.
H&B: Can you tell us a bit about the person’s case and why it matters?
The Person’s Case, Edwards V. Canada, was a constitutional ruling in 1929 that established the right of women to be appointed to the Senate. It’s called the Person’s Case because it was a challenge to the interpretation of the Constitution—then known as the British North America Act—that didn’t consider women to be “persons.” The Act referred to “persons” being in the Senate, and this case determined that women were “persons,” too.
This case cleared the way for women to serve on public bodies, including the Senate, and to be in important decision-making positions, but I think it’s also important to talk about what this case wasn’t. This wasn’t a cure-all or a picture-perfect feminist act. Members of the Famous Five [the group of women who pushed the case forward] supported the eugenics movement and compulsory sterilization of those considered mentally deficient—they were overtly racist and ableist. So I think it’s important to acknowledge that, while these Canadian feminist heroes helped some women for sure, they harmed others. It’s not enough to just celebrate this day in history; we also have to interrogate it.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer, and specifically a human rights lawyer?
I’ve never been able to imagine myself in a career that wasn’t serving others. I decided to go to law school specifically to become a human rights lawyer because I wanted the law to be one of the things in my tool belt to help advocate for justice. That’s why I don’t identify as just a lawyer. I’m a writer, a poet, an organizer—and a lawyer. I’m using all these channels for advocacy.
Can you explain what you do as a feminist legal reform advocate?
Feminist legal reform is, in its simplest terms, pressuring governments and courts to change laws and policies that adversly affect women or other marginalized communities. This can look like many different things: starting a petition, forming a coalition, writing open letters to governments, or acting as an intervener in a constitutional case. I work with a women’s legal NGO called NAWL (National Association of Womens and the Law) that’s been around for decades fighting laws that harm women. I’m a reseracher for various projects and, in particular, I created and facilitated a workshop called A Feminist Guide to Social Media and Activism, which is about helping students and organizations use social media as a tool to enact change.
Any quick tips for using social media for change?
First, don’t be intimidated by it. Just do it, get on, make an account on Twitter, start a TikTok page, make a website—just create a presence. I would also say that, especially when you’re getting started, you should be doing a lot more listening than talking. One of the benefits of social media is that you get to hear perspectives you wouldn’t encounter in your daily life. I have learned so much from following Indigenous land defenders, trans activists—people I might not come in contact with on a daily basis but whose perspectives have really informed my feminism and how I advocate for social change.
How does your law practice intersect with your writing life, and vice versa?
Almost all of my writing is on social justice issues, so it’s directly connected with me being a human rights lawyer. Most people are intimidated by the law because it’s very inaccessible. So I love taking a complex topic—let’s say Canada’s migration policy—and translating all that legal jargon into a few straightforward pages that someone can digest and then go talk about with their friends and family. I write for the same reasons I practice law: to use my voice for positive change.
What’s a social issue you’re particularly passionate about right now?
I’m very passionate about highlighting and fighting against the racist structures of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and the prison industrial complex. It’s just in so many more facets of our lives than we notice. I’ve identified as an abolitionist for years, but as conversations about defunding the police have gone into the mainstream in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the advocacy around this issue has really gained momentum. Every human rights issue is so deeply intertwined that, if you’re passionate about one, you kind of have to be passionate about all of them. But given our current political climate, I’m throwing all my weight behind abolition.
How does your personal style intersect with your professional life?
Like everything, I think style is political. Our make-up, jewellery, fashion—these are ways for women to affirm our autonomy, to put our money where our mouth is, and to showcase what we support. Fashion is a way for us to present ourselves to the world in the way we want to be seen. It’s also a way for us to be allies, and to fight against things like worker exploitation and climate crisis. We can actively choose to support Indigenous creators. We can actively choose to support Black-owned businesses. We can make the move to reject fast fashion. Lastly, we can literally spell out what we believe! My aunt is an artist and I love to screen-print shirts with her, often with a political message.
Do you have any advice for young women pursuing a career in law or justice advocacy?
There are countless tips and tricks for navigating law school, or landing an internship with the UN, but I think the most important thing for people interested in advocacy is to know what moves them. Whatever makes your blood boil—work on that. The form in which we work—as a journalist, lawyer, social worker, politician—will always be trickier to pin down, and it might even change. But the content should be more clear. Work on what moves you, what makes you get out of bed, what makes your heart pound—out of excitement and out of rage. If you don't have your whole body behind your advocacy, it can be hollow, so make sure you pick the field with care.
Writing: Mica Lemiski