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  • Essay: What If? Career Paths Not Taken:Claire L’Heureux-Dubé and Politics
  • Constance Backhouse1

Canadians know Claire L’Heureux-Dubé as one of Canada’s most celebrated judges. Internationally heralded as an icon for her legacy of human rights jurisprudence, she also became a controversial lightning rod for her strongly worded opinions that could provoke anti-feminists and homophobes alike.2 Much of what is publicly known about Claire relates to her years on the Supreme Court of Canada, to which she was appointed in 1987, the second woman so honoured and the first Québécoise. Virtually no one knows that she was also offered a political career in the fall of 1972, a path she rejected only six months before she launched her judicial career as the first woman to be appointed to the Superior Court in the district of Quebec. From there, she skyrocketed to fame on the nation’s top court.

As I have conducted research for Claire’s biography, I have become curious about why Claire selected one life path over another. This essay offers a short detour into one of the most fascinating of Claire’s “paths not taken.” In my view, such an inquiry is not only inherently intriguing but also useful. Researchers know so little about why people opt to move in one direction or are pushed or pulled in another. How much depends on access to information about the possibilities? How much relates to personal ambition and drive? Are talent and skills critical elements? How much is based on status and connections? How many decisions are influenced by families, teachers, or peer groups? How does the economic, social, and political context set the stage? What role does timing play? Few individuals are able to predict their careers accurately, or to appreciate fully all the forces that impact their paths. The lives of important historical figures offer excellent opportunities for dissecting paths taken and not taken, and for illuminating the complexities of the landscapes upon which we deliberately mould our careers or stumble into them. Such explorations also increase the potential for more informed, thoughtful, analytical career-path decisions in the future. [End Page 273]

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Figure 1.

Claire L’Heureux-Dubé.

Courtesy of the Hon. Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé.

First, it may be useful to provide a thumbnail sketch of Claire’s life path prior to the 1972 fork in the road, the dramatic turning point in question.

The Background Setting: Claire’s Early Career

Born in 1927 and raised in Rimouski, Quebec on the lower St. Lawrence River, Claire was the eldest child in a middle-class family.3 In the summer of 1946, when Claire announced she wanted to go into law, she was carving a path that few had trod before. Only eleven women had been admitted to the Quebec bar, which was the last jurisdiction in the country to lower the barriers to female lawyers.4 Across Canada, 1.6 percent of the profession was female.5

Claire entered Laval law school in 1948 as one of two women in the class. When she completed her degree near the top of the class, she became the ninth [End Page 274] woman to graduate from Laval in law.6 In 1952, when she was called to the bar, there were 239 lawyers practicing in Quebec City, 238 of them male. Claire would become the second woman to embark upon private law practice in Quebec City.7 It was her historical fate to be on the cusp of change, at the tip of the wedge that would thrust women into law, decades before Quebec would outstrip the other provinces and claim the highest number of women lawyers in Canada by the turn of the century.8

In the mid-twentieth century, getting started in law was a difficult proposition for anyone, male or female, who did not have elite family backgrounds or legal connections. Quebec City was deeply stratified socially and economically, with those born into bourgeois families privileged over those from less elite tiers and smaller urban or rural areas.9 One lawyer, who qualified for the bar a...


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