Student goes from selling sex to studying law at Osgoode

Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Alan Young paces leisurely. Standing before his Criminal Law I class, he begins to discuss a 1954 murder case, wrote the Toronto Star Nov. 24. “Here’s a guy who’s impotent,” he says. “He goes to a prostitute….”

“Sex worker.”

Even at diverse York University, Wendy Babcock is a curious sight. She takes notes on an unlined piece of white paper. Her arms are tattooed. Her brown hair is streaked pink. And her bespectacled gaze is firm.

In private, she will confess that Osgoode scares her, that she doesn’t know if she belongs, that she doubts she is the intellectual equal of her classmates – who “look like law school students and talk like law school students and have the background a law school student should have.”

Here, staring impassively at Young from a distance of two metres, she appears to be daring an eminent lawyer to argue with her over semantics.

Young, the civil libertarian behind a constitutional challenge of Canada’s prostitution laws, instead offers a smile. “I knew you were going to do that, actually,” he says. “It’s about the only time I actually say ‘prostitute’. Anyway, let’s stop politicizing now.”

At 15, she says she began trading sex for the money she needed to pretend to be a “normal kid”. She dropped out at 16. She slept on the street and in shelters. Because the only respectable jobs available to her offered longer hours for less pay, she kept returning to sex work.

She quit in 2003, when her friend Lien Pham was murdered by a client. The world, she realized, did not much care about the lives of sex workers. She did. So she founded the Bad Date Coalition, a group that produces a monthly pamphlet with information about abusive clients, and runs an abuse hotline.

She found a job as a harm reduction worker with Street Health, where she earned a reputation as a tireless advocate for and counsellor to her former colleagues.

Babcock has countless boosters. Osgoode classmate Justin Dharamdial, who attended a Sunday fundraiser for her, says she has prompted him to ponder issues he had never considered. Street Health supervisor Mary Kay MacVicar, who insisted a skeptical Babcock apply to Osgoode, says she has become an inspiration to the agency’s clients.

  • If you are looking for a cause, Wendy Babcock is your woman. She needs $18,000 to finish her first year at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, wrote columnist Catherine Porter in the Toronto Star Nov. 24.

Babcock’s story is stinging, brutal. It’s hard to hear, wrote Porter. Abusive parents. Homeless at 11. Dropped out of high school at 16.

Babcock is a survivor. She is passionate, intelligent and astoundingly eloquent. She peppers her story with references to case studies on child sex workers, feminist theory and the Criminal Code.

In June, she was accepted into Osgoode Hall Law School: an impressive accomplishment for anyone; coup for a formerly homeless sex worker/high-school dropout.

Osgoode regularly accepts mature students with special circumstances.

Where they fail in academic credentials, they must excel in drive and intellect. They need top LSAT scores. Stellar application letters and references. And they must impress the admissions committee during an in-depth interview.

Most years, around 300 students in total are admitted. Most years, only a half-dozen drop out. “The hard part is getting into law school,” says Gina Alexandris, Osgoode’s assistant dean of student services. “Very few people don’t make it through (to graduate). If you want it badly enough, you can do it.”

In three years, when she graduates from law school, she will be an astounding lawyer, fighting for the rights of marginalized children and women. We will all be better off for it, wrote Porter.

Environmental assessment of Hamilton harbour cleanup is delayed

Construction design changes and a lack of local funding are being blamed for a delay in the $90-million cleanup of toxic tar on Randle Reef in Hamilton harbour, wrote The Canadian Press Nov. 23.

Until the contaminated sediment is removed or contained, the harbour cannot be removed from the International Joint Commission’s list of Great Lakes areas of concern, a move York University researchers say would be worth $1 billion to the city.

We need 21st-century law, writes Osgoode prof

In the early 1890s, Canada was a nation of fewer than five million people. Over 70 per cent of Canadians lived in Quebec or Ontario, wrote James Morton, adjunct professor in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, in a column for the Ottawa Citizen Nov. 24. The church played a significant and direct role in civic life, and virtually the entire population was Christian. Ethnic populations were, apart from First Nations, effectively non-existent. Urban areas were small: Toronto in 1890 had a population about the same size as Sherbrooke, Que., in 2009. More than nine in 10 Canadians lived in rural areas.

The Criminal Code was enacted in 1892. It was a careful attempt by leading criminal specialists to codify British law as applied in Canada in 1890. Despite amendments following a Royal Commission in 1947 (passed in 1953), the Criminal Code was never fundamentally revised. A modern Canadian lawyer would immediately recognize the 1892 Criminal Code as being, in the main, the same Criminal Code as applies in Canada today.

We are at a unique junction politically in Canada. All major parties support criminal justice reform. The goal of a just and safer Canada is shared by all public figures and there is the political will to make change.

The goal of the criminal justice system is to prevent crime and to justify society where crime has occurred. Now is the right time to revisit the Criminal Code in light of those goals.

Adults must stand up with children to prevent bullying

Last week, Canadian students were standing up against bullying. Adults need to stand up too, wrote Debra Pepler, Distinguished Research Professor in Psychology in York’s Faculty of Health and scientific co-director of PREVNet, and a colleague in a letter to The Kingston Whig-Standard Nov. 24.

Bullying is a destructive relationship problem. Children who bully learn how to use power and aggression to control and distress others. Children who are victimized become trapped in abusive relationships.

Since bullying is a relationship problem, it requires relationship solutions. Adults need to provide those relationship solutions in all places where youths live, learn, work and play.

Start today. Be aware of, and engage in, promoting a healthy relationship context for children. Stand up for them and with them against bullying.

The letter was co-signed by Wendy Craig, scientific co-director of PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network), a psychology professor at Queen’s University.

Parental conflict during divorce can haunt children

Fewer marriages in Canada are ending in divorce than is commonly thought, but the effects of the split can affect every member of the family, a new report indicates, wrote Canwest New Service Nov. 24.

The popular notion that half of all marriages fail is not true, according to the report released by the Vanier Institute of the Family. But there is also no sign that Canadian divorce rates will drop in the future.

“What we’re not talking about is the impact of parent conflict after the divorce and while they’re separated,” says Anne-Marie Ambert, professor emerita in the Department of Sociology in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, and author of the report. “It’s what happens after – when the parents bicker over everything, over every cent, over every visit, and the kids are placed in the middle of that – that is bound to be very bad.”

  • Ambert also spoke about her new study on Radio Canada International’s “The Link” Nov. 23.

Living ‘The Office’

Like unhappy families, dysfunctional work teams have their flaws and subsequent pathologies. They can offer fodder for comedies such as “The Office”, or they can trip up business growth. In the knowledge economy, teams matter, wrote the National Post Nov. 24.

A poorly performing team can generate personal unhappiness and ultimately the failure of large, costly initiatives if not companies themselves. Recognizing the red flags of toxic teams, and knowing how – and if – they can be repaired, are crucial skills for executives.

Sometimes, the absence of conflict can itself be a problem within a team, says Jean Adams, a professor of policy at the Schulich School of Business at York University with a special interest in team dynamics.

“Some teams look as if everything is going beautifully, and they’re actually in trouble. Sometimes the task is getting done, and everyone gets along, but the team isn’t meeting its full potential. If there isn’t enough constructive conflict, or enough difference, then that’s a team that could be described as dysfunctional just because they could be doing so much better.”

  • “The first meeting of the team is critical,” says Mary Waller, a professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University who has been researching team dynamics for some 15 years, wrote the National Post Nov. 24. “Teams typically start falling into the pattern of behaviour and roles within the first few minutes of the first meeting. It’s striking.”

Learning centre opens in Barrie

Award-winning entrepreneur Kevin Downe started his math career as a young student in Barrie, and now returns the favour by opening one of his learning centres here to help other young people, wrote the Barrie Advance Nov. 23.

Mind Over Math is a math-specific tutoring service intended not only to teach, but also to inspire a love for the subject at all levels. Downe is now enrolled in the teaching program at York University.

On air

  • Michael Riddell, professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science in the Faculty of Health, spoke about a new diabetes study he and others are conducting, on CBC Radio Nov. 23.
  • York grad Susan Gapka (BA ’09), adviser for the At Home/Chez Soi project, spoke about the study of homelessness and mental health, on CBC Newsworld Nov. 23.