Taking our Message to the Supreme Court of Canada

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by Yvonne Peters

The formation of the Women's Health Rights Coalition was an exceptional response on the part of concerned groups to the serious issues involved in the "G" case. Here's how it was organized.

The Women's Health Clinic (the Clinic) decided to get involved in the "G" case for two main reasons. First, because the case had the potential to significantly affect women's autonomy. Second, and most importantly, because we believe that aggressive social policies and comprehensive health care initiatives offer more effective solutions for dealing with pregnancy and addiction than the punitive legal measures proposed by Winnipeg Child and Family Services.

The Clinic decided that the best way to participate in the case was to obtain official standing before the Supreme Court of Canada as an intervenor. Before applying for this status, the Clinic decided it was very important to build a coalition with like-minded community groups interested in the outcome of the case.

The Clinic initiated discussions with many community groups, including those representing Aboriginal and Métis women. In the end, the Women's Health Rights Coalition was formed. It worked closely with other groups, such as the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), that also intervened in the case.

The first task of the Coalition was to select a lawyer to represent us. Arne Peltz of the Public Interest Law Centre was chosen because of his experience in working with community groups and because of his experience in appearing before the Supreme Court of Canada.

Our second task was to develop the arguments we wished to present to the Court. This required lots of time, lots of discussion and lots of patience on the part of our lawyer. On one hand, we all recognized the seriousness of substance use during pregnancy and the need to do something about it. On the other hand, we were opposed to and doubtful of the effectiveness of forcing women into treatment.

Ultimately, we developed arguments that questioned the effectiveness of subjecting women to court-ordered treatment and suggested that more effective alternatives be used -- alternatives that existed but had not yet been fully explored, much less implemented.(For a brief summary of these arguments, see page 4 of this issue.)

The Coalition was granted intervenor status by the Court and our arguments were presented to the Court both orally at the hearing on June 18, 1997 and in our written factum (brief). We now await the Court's decision.

The Clinic invested enormous time and energy into preparing this case. Some might question the value of such an undertaking. But it is clear that more and more issues with important social consequences are being brought before the courts. This means that women's health issues have the potential to be affected by both political and legal decisions. In both circumstances our vigilance is necessary.

Yvonne Peters is Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Women's Health Clinic in Winnipeg.