Constance Backhouse


Constance Backhouse

Molson Prize (2015)

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Constance Backhouse


Faculty of Law
Common Law

Influencing sexual assault legislation in Canada

For the past century, litigants, lawyers, judges, jurors, and legislators have struggled over how to respond to claims of rape, indecent assault, incest, and sexual activity between adults and children. They have drawn lines between consensual and forcible sex. They have agonized over how to assess the credibility of those who make accusations, and those who defend themselves against accusations. They have attempted to justify the legal results as necessary and fair within the context of the wider justice system.

Over the past decade, various research grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) have allowed Dr. Backhouse to research the period of 1900 to 1950, a time during which relations between men and women, courting patterns, and sexual behaviour changed dramatically. Surprisingly, sexual assault law remained tenaciously uniform.

The University Research Chair (URC) enables Dr. Backhouse to collect and analyze a further 25-year period of historical and sociological data surrounding the evolution of sexual assault law and its social ramifications in Canada. The events that took place from 1950 to 1975 were the direct precursor to a series of legislative and judicial reforms on sexual assault, much of which occurred in response to the demands for reform from the second wave of the Canadian women's movement. This research will allow us to more critically reflect on the social impact of the recent rape law reforms in Canada: What were the objectives? What side effects may have occurred? Have the changes gone too far, impoverishing the rights of accused men and privileging those who complain of sexual assault? Or do the verdicts seem similar to those at the turn of the 20th century? Have the reforms produced little real change?

Dr. Backhouse is the Director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa, Director of the University of Ottawa Common Law Exchange Program and a member of the Board of Directors of the Women's Education and Research Foundation of Ontario. Her books have received the Willard Hurst Prize in American Legal History, the Gustavus Myers Award, and the Joseph Brant Award. She is the recipient of the Bora Laskin National Fellowship in Human Rights, and is a member of the 2002 Law and Society Association International Prize committee.

Dr. Backhouse enjoys an international reputation, not only as one of Canada's finest legal historians, but also as an extremely talented multi-disciplinary scholar, a social activist and cultural critic par excellence. She has been a cutting-edge scholar in significant areas of contemporary policy formation, such as reproduction, family, sexual offences, the legal profession, equity within universities, and employment law.

Featured Awards and Recognition

  • Molson Prize (2015)
  • Governor General's Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case (2013)
  • SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research (2011)
  • David Walter Mundell Medal (2011)
  • Order of Ontario (2009)
  • Order of Canada  - Member (C.M.) (2008)
  • Killam Prize (2007)
  • Excellence in Research Award (2006)
  • Trudeau Foundation Fellow (2006)
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (2004)
  • Distinguished University Professor (2003)

Research Chairs

  • University Research Chair on the Sexual Assault Legislation in Canada (2003)
    University Research Chair
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