Dalhousie Law Journal


Bertha Wilson, Canada, equality, rights, power, courts, lawyers, justice, judge


Increasingly, Canadians have sought to understand themselves as a community through the language of equality rights. There are several practical and theoretical consequences to this choice of language. One of the practical consequences is that a formal commitment to equality raises public consciousness with regard to material and social disparities and to some extent gives those who are excluded or marginalized at least a rhetorical claim to participation and a share in resources. However, another consequence is that while promoting a rhetoric of respect and individual dignity, equality discourse also places a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of elite groups, namely the courts, lawyers, and social groups who have access to courts and lawyers. The dissonance persists on a theoretical level. The recourse to the language of equality rights can be regarded as a shift away from a notion of community in which hierarchy is based on status and on the exploitation of need to a notion of community in which need is the occasion for the democratization of social and material goods. Conversely, equality rights discourse can also represent a shift to a notion of community in which hierarchy is the natural outcome of competition between individuals who share the same opportunities. What is confusing is that the language of equality rights retains tremendous force and power, and yet when translated into social arrangements, it can have contradictory practical consequences, and can signify contradictory visions of community.