Debra Parkes

Class of 1996-1997

The Allard School of Law is pleased to welcome Professor Debra Parkes to the faculty. Professor Parkes will be joining us on July 1, 2016 as the Chair in Feminist Legal Studies and Director of the Centre for Feminist Legal Studies.

What attracted you to the Chair in Feminist Legal Studies position at the Allard School of Law?

This is a dream job for me. The Allard School of Law is the only law school in the country to have a Chair in Feminist Legal Studies, which says something important about the commitment of the law school to critical perspectives and to social justice. The research, teaching, and community-building that Susan Boyd (now Professor Emerita) did as founding Chair in Feminist Legal Studies for more than two decades has had a huge impact on the law and on the careers of many feminist lawyers and academics. I am fortunate to be one of those beneficiaries and I am honoured to have an opportunity to follow in her footsteps although I will never fill her big shoes (to mix a couple of metaphors)!

You received your LLB at UBC in 1997. How does it feel to be back?

It feels wonderful! Allard Hall is such an exciting place to be these days. I have the privilege of working with some of the people who got me started in this career, as well as some brilliant new additions to the Faculty. I have followed with interest the growth of the law school and the addition of exciting new programs. I can’t wait to be a part of the law school’s future.

It also seems impossible that 19 years have passed since I graduated because my memories of law school are so very vivid.

The Feminist Legal Studies program was in its early stages when you were a student here. Were you involved much with the program during your time at UBC?

I attended many lectures as well as informal meet-and-greet events in the CFLS space (at that time located in a portable beside the old building). I had the opportunity to meet feminist heroes – academics, lawyers, and community leaders who were working on a range of issues and making a difference. Many members of that community of students and faculty who connected through the Centre have become lifelong friends and mentors.

What are some of your favorite memories from law school?

Representing UBC at the national Gale Cup Moot competition was a highlight of my law school experience. And Blue Chip cookies played a pretty important role in my studying! I also had the opportunity to work as a research assistant for Professors Isabel Grant, Judy Mosoff and Christine Boyle, which gave me a window on academic work and the contributions that feminist law professors were making on a range of important issues.

In addition, a little piece of activism that a few of my law school friends and I engaged in during the last few weeks of law school stands out. At that time, there was a law student-edited newsletter called The Informer. I think it aspired to be a satirical take on the law school experience but too often it ended up spouting sexism, racism, and homophobia in its pages. In third year, a group of us had had enough so we published a single issue of The Out-for-her, in which we attempted a humorous, intersectional feminist response. I do not know whether we had any impact on the law school culture at the time but we thought we were hilarious.

Why did you decide to leave practice to pursue academia?

I had a great experience in practice as a member of the Advocacy group at Gowlings LLP in Toronto, working with a fabulous team of lawyers that is now the litigation firm of Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP. I was mentored by brilliant lawyers and I had opportunities to work on files at all levels of court, including at the Supreme Court of Canada. But I soon realized that the work I loved the most – the research and writing, the thinking about what the law might be – was not the sort of work I would be doing day-to-day as my career as a litigator advanced. So I left the firm to hit the books again, enrolling in the LL.M. program at Columbia Law School in New York.

How did you first get involved with prisoners’ rights?

That, too, began at UBC. In third year I enrolled in Michael Jackson’s Penal Policy seminar, which opened my eyes to some of the deep injustices and rights violations going on behind prison walls across Canada. I had a particular interest in the experience of women prisoners and Prof. Jackson introduced me to two Indigenous women who were then serving their federal sentences inside a segregated maximum security unit in a men’s prison in Saskatchewan. He also introduced me to Kim Pate, who helped me understand the gendered and racialized context for this very problematic correctional policy. Kim is the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and a leading advocate for the rights of criminalized and incarcerated women. For two decades she has been a mentor, friend, and collaborator. I have learned a great deal from Kim, from Michael, and from the many current and formerly incarcerated women and men I have met, beginning with those early days in Penal Policy.

One of your current SSHRC projects investigates the prisoner complaint and oversight systems in Canada and internationally. Can you talk a little more about this project and what you hope the outcome will be?

Canadians know very little about what goes on behind prison walls. Occasionally we see troubling glimpses of, for example, the death of 19 year-old Ashley Smith in a federal solitary confinement cell while correctional officers watched. The Correctional Investigator fulfills an ombuds function for the federal prison system, but that office only has the power to make recommendations, not enforce the law or redress rights violations. My research examines prisoner litigation as one means to promote accountability and oversight of correctional systems (although this potential is hampered due to the very limited unavailability of legal aid funding for prison cases across the country).

The transparency and accountability gap is even more pronounced for provincial and territorial corrections. As part of my SSHRC research, I wanted to find out how solitary confinement was being used in Manitoba jails. I learned that the province does not keep statistics on its use of solitary confinement, notwithstanding the well-documented human rights issues associated with the practice. The documents I was eventually able to obtain through access to information for Manitoba’s women’s jail revealed that many placements in solitary confinement were made for undocumented reasons or for stated justifications that are not grounded in law (for example, for “overflow”). My research reveals this lack of basic transparency in Canadian correctional systems and examines alternatives such as a prison inspection system modeled on Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons in England and Wales. At another level, this research considers what the resistance of correctional systems to external accountability reveals about the largely unquestioned role these unaccountable institutions play in our legal system and society.

You served as the President of the Manitoba Elizabeth Fry Association. What were some highlights for you during your term as President? Are there any particular cases that you would like to mention?

During my time on the Board, the Elizabeth Fry Society of Manitoba brought a human rights complaint against Manitoba Justice, alleging that women prisoners experienced discrimination on the basis of sex, race, and disability. This was a systemic complaint aimed at drawing attention to the deplorable conditions at the provincial women’s jail, but it was also informed by the organization’s strong view that the answer was not to build a bigger and better prison but to address the unique needs of women in the community. The complaint resulted in a mediation and some concrete changes that improved conditions and increased the role that community organizations played in overseeing women’s imprisonment. Unfortunately, the province has since built a women’s correctional centre with four times the capacity of the old jail (and that new facility is regularly full) so there is an acute need for ongoing advocacy in this area.

You’ve been involved with developing guidelines for Gladue. Given your background and knowledge in this area of law, what are your thoughts on the TRC call for action and the role that law schools play?

Living and working in Manitoba for 15 years, I have been confronted with the truly alarming incarceration rate of Indigenous people. With upwards of 75% of Manitoba prisoners being Indigenous, it is clear to me that we in the legal profession and academy need to face those facts and to ask whether we are part of the problem or part of the solution to that injustice. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action map out some of the elements of a way forward but there is more work for all of to do to truly teach for reconciliation. The Reconciliation Syllabus > led by colleagues at UVic Law is a great example of that work already underway.

One concrete thing I was able to do with some colleagues and students at the University of Manitoba was to develop a Gladue Handbook for Justice System Participants in Manitoba. This volume is available free online and is meant as a user-friendly resource for lawyers making sentencing submissions for Indigenous clients, to try to make good on the promise of Gladue and the statutory direction that sentencing courts meaningfully consider non-carceral alternatives for Indigenous people. I have been heartened by the number of lawyers, judges, and advocates who have contacted me from across the country to say that they found the handbook useful. Clearly there is an appetite for this kind of resource.

What are you looking forward to the most in your new position as Chair in Feminist Legal Studies?

I am excited at the prospect of working among so many colleagues and students who see the value of feminist research. There really is an embarrassment of riches in the way of feminist legal talent at the Allard School of Law. And the Marlee Kline Room, named for one of the professors who inspired me as a law student, is a wonderful hub for that engagement. I look forward to dropping in there regularly for tea and conversation.

What is the one thing that you would like the Allard School of Law community to know about you?

While I was born and raised in BC and am delighted to be back, I am going to be lonely for Winnipeg. I’d especially welcome students, staff, and colleagues with connections to the ‘Peg (or who also love the Weakerthans, Tall Grass cinnamon buns, and big prairie skies) to stop by to say hello.