University of Calgary

Walk the Talk

Submitted by alumni on Sun, 10/30/2016 - 18:09.

Walk the Talk

JENNIFER KOSHAN, BSc’85, LLB’88, UCalgary law professor, 2013 Canadian Association of Law Teachers (CALT) Prize for Academic Excellence, 2015 Alumni Achievement Award

Jennifer Koshan and her partner, Greg Francis, stop for a quick photo op during their ascent to Lenana summit at 16,500 ft. on Mount Kenya, April 2012.

A passionate lawyer, scholar and member of UCalgary’s faculty of law, Koshan consistently battles for social justice and law reform. Multiple awards honour her achievements in both the courts and the classroom as she fights violence against women and works for positive social changes.

The woman had grey hair and glasses, bent slightly forward in the wood-panelled courtroom, working her knitting needles.

The Supreme Court of British Columbia was hearing a constitutional challenge on a heated and deadly case. This was 20 years ago, during a time when zealots who were eager to stop access to legal abortions at clinics were shooting their opponents. "I feel very strongly about my duty to speak up and speak out on behalf of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. I have academic freedom protected at the University of Calgary and I am grateful for it.”

On the one side, where the woman sat, anti-abortion activists were fighting to have the protest-free bubble-zone legislation that provided space around abortion clinics removed so that they could blockade access to clinics.

Jennifer Koshan, who was working as a graduate student and legal director for the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), sat with a group on the other side, that was intervening on behalf of the BC provincial government to support the bubble-zone law. As Koshan listened, she noticed the woman who was calmly knitting, then focused hard on the needles. Then she realized why.

“It struck me,” Koshan says. “Knitting needles have huge symbolic importance for those who advocate for abortion rights. When women don’t have access to abortion services, knitting needles can be a way for them to perform their own abortion.”

Her mind went to the worst. “I have two small kids. There have been recent shootings and deaths of abortion service providers. My role was to speak to the media. Should I be taking these risks?”

Wavering between the danger she feared on one side and the duty she felt on the other, a flare of insight lit a path for Koshan. She would walk it many times for others, as a lawyer and activist and teacher and mother, for as far and as long as she could go.

“At that moment, I decided that, as a lawyer, as someone who has expertise and training to fight against injustice, it is my duty to speak and fight on others’ behalf,” she says.

The road has led her many places, most lately to mountainous Kenya, where she helped to lead The Equality Effect’s 160 Girls project, which aims to protect girls in Kenya against rape while ensuring justice. And that case 20 years ago? The law in the abortion case was upheld.


Defining Moment: Courtroom drama sparks insight.

Claim to Fame: Koshan was a founding member of the Women’s Court of Canada, a shadow court that rewrites judgments from a feminist perspective. The Supreme Court of Canada has cited her work in equality rights decisions.

Advice: “Working towards social justice is a long and winding road, often with no apparent end in sight, but even small steps forward are well worth it.”

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