On March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day, a global day to recognize and celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world. It is also a time to reflect and raise awareness about the current issues that women face.
The first International Women’s Day took place on March 19, 1911, in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. On that day, more than one million protesters held rallies and campaigned for the right of women to work, vote, be trained and to hold positions in public office.
As a firm, we celebrate pivotal trailblazers who immensely contributed to the advancement of gender equality in the legal profession, Clara Brett Martin, Delia Opekokwe and Violet Pauline King Henry.
Canada’s First Female Lawyer
The first woman to become a lawyer in Canada was Clara Brett Martin (“Clara”). Clara began her legal journey in the late 1800s. At that time, the Canadian government barred women from becoming lawyers and prohibited them from voting.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics, Clara applied for a student membership with the Law Society of Upper Canada in 1891. The Law Society of Upper Canada (the “Law Society”) initially denied her request stating that only “persons” were eligible to practice law in Canada and under the legislation at the time, persons referred only to men.
Despite this initial rejection, Clara did not give up on her dreams and in 1892 an amending Bill was passed that redefined the word “person” to include “women”. This allowed Clara to reapply for a student membership with the Law Society. After receiving a student membership from the Law Society, Clara commenced her articles with a Toronto law firm in 1893. Despite receiving discriminatory treatment from her fellow articling students and legal secretaries, she was called to the Ontario bar and received her L.L.B in 1899. 
Canada’s First Indigenous Female Lawyer
Image of Delia Opekokwe. Courtesy of Law Society of Ontario, Author: Kelly Provost.Almost 100 years later, the first Indigenous woman to become a lawyer in Canada was Delia Opekokwe (“Delia”). At the age of seven, Delia attended the Beauval Residential School in Saskatchewan. Delia used her challenging life experiences to fuel her passion for advocacy. After obtaining a Bachelor of Laws degree from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1977, she was called to the Bar of Ontario in 1979 and the Bar of Saskatchewan in 1983.
Delia went on to practice Family, Criminal, and Indigenous law in Toronto from 1980 to 1990. Between 1990 and 1998, she practiced exclusively in First Nations law, specializing in treaty rights. After decades of practicing law, Delia became an adjudicator with the Indian Residential School Adjudication Process and was instrumental in reaching a class-action settlement agreement between the government and residential school survivors. 
Today, Delia continues to be a voice for the Indigenous community to ensure that Residential School survivors receive proper support.
Canada’s First Black Female Lawyer
The first Black woman to become a lawyer in Canada was Violet Pauline King Henry (“Violet”) who was born in Alberta and whose Grade 12 yearbook caption read: “Violet wants to be a criminal lawyer”. In 1948, Violet attended the University of Alberta and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952. Despite the lack of women pursuing higher education at this time, Violet was determined to achieve her goals. Out of 142 students in her undergraduate program, Violet was one of three women in her undergraduate program.
In 1953, Violet received her LLB degree and was the only female in her graduating class. After being called to the Bar of Alberta in 1954, Violet joined a well-known criminal law firm in Alberta and went on to have a long and successful career as a criminal lawyer. Along her journey of becoming a lawyer, Violet faced many challenges and openly advocated against racism and the need for women of all races and backgrounds to be treated equally. In a speech delivered at the Beta Sigma Phi Sorority banquet in Calgary in 1955 Violet stated, “It is too bad that a Japanese, Chinese, or colored girl has to outshine others to secure a position”.
Intersectionality and the fight for equal rights
Despite the progress made in achieving equality, inequality still exists today. The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to explain how the inequality that women face is not always the same. In many circumstances, various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. There is a tendency in society to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality, or immigrant status. However, this narrow mindset often misses the reality for those women who are subject to multiple forms of inequalities at the same time. For example, women coming from racialized backgrounds often experience discrimination and inequality in a way that is intensified. As well, transgendered women face greater discrimination than cis gendered women. In cases of 2slgbtqia+ murders, racialized women and transgendered women are more likely to be victims.
International Women’s Day is about celebrating the achievements and contributions of women. The ambitious mindsets of Clara, Delia, and Violet spearheaded a great shift in the legal landscape and opened the doors for women to join the legal profession. We celebrate their exceptional achievements and commitment to equality.
We would like to thank Gagandeep Singh, Articling Student, for his assistance in writing this blog.