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International Women's Day 2012 profiles of exceptional impact and achievement

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The Chief Justice has served at every level of Canadian law, from her early days practicing in Alberta and British Columbia to her judicial career with the Supreme Court of B.C. and then the Supreme Court of Canada. She was appointed to her current role in 2000.

Though her judgements may not always satisfy hardcore feminists, Chief Justice McLachlin has been known to stand up for women facing discrimination. For instance, in a 1999 case she condemned an Alberta judge for perpetuating harmful stereotypes about women and consent in sexual assault cases. Later that year, she also wrote a unanimous sex-discrimination decision that reinstated a female firefighter who had lost her job after failing a fitness test designed for men.

More recently, the Chief Justice added her voice to the legal profession's criticism of Conservative Minister Jason Kenney, after he condemned Federal Court judges for not "towing the line" with regards to Tory immigration policies. Standing up for judicial independence is just one of Chief Justice McLachlin's admirable causes, and as others have said, when she speaks up for something, people listen.

Jeannette Corbiere Lavell's words hold equal weight.  Elected as president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) in 2009, Lavell has dedicated her life to bettering the lives of Aboriginal women. She was born on Manitoulin Island, Ontario and belongs to the Nishnawbe people, and over the years she has travelled across Canada to work with Native communities.

Corbiere Lavell’s most notable achievement came out of a landmark court case she led in the 1970s to appeal a discriminatory section of the Indian Act, which repealed the Aboriginal status of women who married non-Aboriginal men. Women in this situation—and their children, by extension—lost their status, their treaty benefits and the right to participate in band council. But men, on the other hand, were allowed to keep their status and pass it on to their children, even if they married a non-Aboriginal woman.

Though judges ruled against Corbiere Lavell’s original case, other courageous First Nations women followed in her footsteps. In 1985, after Sandra Lovelace brought the issue to the United Nations International Human Rights Commission, the section these women had fought against was finally removed from the Indian Act.

Now at the head of the NWAC, Corbiere Lavell continues to work tirelessly for Aboriginal women and their rights. It’s a difficult task, faced with shocking statistics about violence among female First Nations. Recent reports show that victimization of Aboriginal women is nearly triple that of non-Aboriginal women. Even more frightening is the fact that over 75 per cent of violent incidents are never reported to police.

Issues surrounding violence are front-and-centre here in Vancouver, with ongoing inquiries into the cases of many missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The depth of community engagement in the area made the city a perfect place for the NWAC and the BC Ministry of Aboriginal Relations to co-host 2011’s Collaboration to End Violence: National Aboriginal Women’s Forum.

The national forum brought respected figures together to discuss new ways to prevent violence and to protect the health and safety of Aboriginal women.

South of the border, another powerful woman named Annise Parker made history when citizens of Houston, Texas elected her as Mayor in 2009. The victory made her the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, and despite anti-gay attacks from her opponents in the last election, she’s now into her second term in office. 

After working for 20 years as a software analyst in Texas’ oil and gas industry, she ran for Houston City Council three times before she became the city’s first openly gay elected official. She acted as Houston’s city controller from 2003 onwards, and as mayor has taken aggressive action to support local development and improve city infrastructure. 

Parker—who has two adopted daughters with her life partner Kathy Hubbard—overcame intense discrimination in Houston's 2011 election. One of her major challengers, anti-gay activist Dave Wilson, ran primarily because he disagreed with the city having a lesbian mayor. In his campaign, Wilson repeatedly bashed his opponent’s “homosexual agenda”, but in the end she came out on top.

Recently, Mayor Parker has been making headlines by joining 90 other U.S. mayors in support of the Freedom to Marry initiative. While other notable mayors faced little criticism when they joined the movement, Parker’s support sparked a backlash from the conservative and religious community. One outspoken leader, Pastor Steve Riggle of the Grace Community Church, has actually called for her to step down from office because of her supportive stance on gay marriage.

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