Photo by John To
Beth Symes, Law '76
For Beth Symes, Law ‘76, being appointed a Member of the Order of Canada on December 30 was a great way to ring in the New Year after spending the last 32 fighting tirelessly on behalf of Canadian women. Symes, who practises administrative law and civil litigation at Symes and Street in Toronto, admits the tribute has a special significance. “It’s wonderful that in Canada we acknowledge that the struggle for equality rights for women is worthy of being honoured.”
When Symes was called to the bar in 1978, several recent legal decisions motivated her to choose her life’s work. “At that time the story of women litigating in Canada was dismal. Jeanette Lavell and Yvonne Bedard, Irene Murdoch and Stella Bliss were all women forced to take legal action because they were up against the wall. Without exception they lost, and they all lost big.”
Those decisions, coupled with Symes’ experience at Queen’s Law, helped to politicize her. “It was a time of real focus on civic responsibility. The profession of law became seen as one in which you tried to make a difference and help people. Not only did Queen’s consider that important, but it gave me and my classmates the tools to make that happen.”
Symes joined the Women’s Legal Association, which also influenced her advocacy. She chose labour law as the best way for her to help.
During the early 1980s she began mobilizing female lawyers and educating women across the country. “We spoke everywhere from church basements to union halls.” In 1985, she helped to found LEAF -- the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund -- and served on its National Legal Committee. LEAF took on and won a number of important battles for women.
Asked to name which of her achievements matters most to her, Symes cites “the establishment of LEAF, having daughters, and representing a wide range of women who have lost their jobs or are about to lose their profession. Sometimes you get to make a difference.”
Prior to the Order of Canada, into which she’ll be inducted later this year by Governor General David Johnston, Law ‘66, LLD ‘91, Symes was awarded the 1996 Law Society of Upper Canada Medal and the 2010 LEAF Founders Award.
Currently, she serves as a bencher for the Law Society of Upper Canada, a member of the Advisory Committee for Queen’s new Centre for Law in the Contemporary Workplace, and co-chair of the Task Force for the Retention of Women in the Legal Profession.
One of her biggest concerns is the effect of inadequate child care on women. “These battles are not just legal anymore,” she says. “They’re political as well. Combining the two will mean even more change for women.”