Three Delegates to Rome Alice Desjardins

Alice DesjardinsJus est suum cuique tribuere, the Latin maxim that inspired one of her law professors, who later became a judge, also guides the Honourable Alice Desjardins LL.M. ’67. The words mean "justice is to give each what is owed to him," she explains. "It is the work of a lifetime to reach this goal."

A member of the HLSA Executive Committee, Desjardins traveled to Rome from Canada, where she is the first and still the only woman to serve as a justice of the Federal Court of Canada, Appeal Division, the country’s second highest court. (She is also a justice on the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada.)

"The Federal Court is a traveling court," Desjardins says. "The Court sits and transacts business at any place in Canada to suit the convenience of the parties." The Court is also bilingual, as is Desjardins; the judges are required under Canada’s Official Languages Act to understand both French and English proceedings without the assistance of an interpreter.

A high-profile case that tested Desjardins’ Latin motto is Conway v. The Queen, for which she rendered the majority judgment. Male prisoners
had challenged the use of female guards for frisk searches and cell patrols. They asserted a right to privacy and equal treatment, noting that women’s prisons did not use male guards for these tasks.

After the trial judge ruled that female guards could only interact with male prisoners in their cells without their consent in emergencies, the case was sent to the Federal Court of Appeal. In rejecting the lower court’s decision, Desjardins’ opinion addressed whether the prisoners’ "interest in being left alone by government has to give way to the government’s interest in intruding on the individual’s privacy in order to advance its goals."

With many more men than women in the prison system, female guards would lose employment opportunities if allowed to work only in women’s prisons. And although the male prisoners would indeed lose some privacy if female guards were used, Desjardins gave more weight to evidence indicating that the employment of women improved the quality of prison life and inmate rehabilitation.

Desjardins received her bachelor’s degree and law degree at the University of Montreal. After entering the Quebec Bar in 1958, she spent two years at the London School of Economics and Political Science at the University of London, where she researched Indian and Australian comparative constitutional law.

In 1961 she became the first woman to teach fulltime in a Canadian law school, at the University of Montreal, where she taught constitutional law. Historically, women were the mainstay of Canadian education at the primary level, particularly in rural Canada; Desjardins’ faculty appointment was a leap forward.

She took a leave from the University of Montreal to enter Harvard’s LL.M. program in 1966, on a Ford Foundation scholarship. "To be at Harvard was a tremendous experience, a place," she says, "where one is constantly driven to extend the limits of one’s skills."

After her graduation, Desjardins interned in the legal division of the UN Secretariat in New York City. She then resumed teaching until 1969, when she entered federal public service as legal counsel in the Privy Council Office. In 1973 she left that post to serve as senior policy officer in the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. In 1974 she was appointed Queen’s Counsel and became the director for Advisory and Administrative Law in Canada’s Department of Justice, and in 1981 she received her first judicial appointment, to the Quebec Superior Court, where she served till 1987.

What brought Desjardins to Rome above all was the likelihood of meeting more international alumni, at the
first event of its kind held outside Cambridge. "I thought the congress was a great opportunity to meet a more diversified group," she says. "I most enjoyed the conversations on the buses," in particular with fellow graduates from Nigeria and China. Desjardins regrets that some countries and regions, including India, Africa, and Southeast Asia, weren’t better represented; she hopes the next Worldwide Congress, in 2001, will involve underrepresented areas further.

While in Rome, Desjardins took every opportunity to visit works of art and architecture. A fascination with French cathedrals often inspires her own travels. In France she will pass an entire day in a cathedral, she says, peering through binoculars "to make sure I remember the finest lines." In icebergs, her other favorite object of study, which she has tracked down in Greenland, Antarctica, and the Canadian Arctic, Desjardins finds the same architectural perfection, "and perhaps greater beauty. These mastodons move slowly, in terrifying peace."

Desjardins travels this month to Cambridge to take part in Celebration 45. She is excited by "the new energy released as more women attain positions of great responsibility. I look forward to discovering the different perspectives that are developing as a result."

Julia Collins

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