History of AWL

The Calgary Women Lawyers Association (CWLA), which was launched in the 1960s under the leadership of Mary Hetherington (now retired from the Alberta Court of Appeal), had formally announced through a Law Society notice circulated in the summer of 1993, its decision to cease activities and to disband as an organization.

In the late fall of 1993, thirteen Calgary women lawyers formed a Steering Committee and entered into discussions for the development of a new organization to meet the changing needs of women in the legal profession. They were a diverse group, representing women from private practice and business environments, those new to the profession as well as others who had found unique ways to utilize their law degrees. Their common interest crossed political lines and transcended individual aspirations.

In January 1994, the new Steering Committee undertook the task of analyzing the present and future needs of women in the legal profession and working towards developing a networking and support mandate distinct from other professional organizations of its kind.

The original Steering Committee members were:

  • Carolyn Phillips
  • Marsha C. Erb
  • The Honourable Madam Justice S.L. Hunt McDonald
  • Elaine McCoy, QC
  • Catherine McCreary
  • Madeleine King
  • M. Jane Rotnem
  • Shirley Jackson
  • Joanne E. Ingram
  • Janet E. Russell
  • Michelle Stanners
  • Cynthia Hill
  • Nadine Casey MacDonald

It was decided that a new organization with a distinctive name and logo would best signal a fresh approach and mandate. AWL (originally intended to be pronounced “All” ) came to be. Elaine McCoy had coined the organization’s focus on a collective spirit with her imaginative approach: “AWL (All) for one and one for AWL (All)”. However, over time the current acronym became the common short reference. The Steering Committee spent a great deal of time developing its mission Statement as the guiding principle for the organization:

“The Association of Women Lawyers (AWL) is committed to promoting the advancement, equality, interests and well-being of women in the legal profession.”

AWL immediately instituted a “patron” system and solicited Calgary law firms for contributions to acquire seed money for hosting its inauguration and its first formal event. A total of 25 patrons comprising lawyers, judges and law firms responded to the request for support.

The inauguration reception took place at the MacDougall Centre in June 1994. AWL members acknowledged the leaders of the former CWLA and expressed appreciation for the work CWLA had undertaken during more than three decades of service to women in the profession. The new organization unveiled the mission statement and logo. The Hon. Anne McLellan, then the Minister for Natural Resources and Dr. Sheilah Martin, then Dean of Law at the University of Calgary, were guest speakers. Each addressed some of the unique challenges women lawyers face and shared their own experiences.

AWL’s first executive committee was:
President: Marsha Erb
First Vice president: Virginia Engel
Second Vice president: Shirley Jackson
Treasurer: Nadine Casey MacDonald
Secretary: M. Jane Rotnem
Newsletter Editor: Yvonne Gagnon
Directors: Janet Russell (founding member)
Catherine McCreary (founding member)
Gwen Randall, Q.C.
Patricia Daunais, Q.C.
Shanna Hunka

Two Steering Committee members, Carolyn Phillips and Sandra Hunt MacDonald, were each invited by AWL to serve as judicial liaisons on the board of directors upon their appointment to the Court of Queen’s Bench and Provincial Court of Alberta, respectively.

Over the years, AWL has hosted numerous events intended to enhance the stature of women lawyers in the legal profession and to provide them with the support and tools necessary to break through the glass ceiling. Keeping women lawyers current on developments in the law and in methods of assisting them in practice has always been an important focus. Career options beyond practice in a law firm setting, a self-defense program sponsored by women police officers, financial planning and other educational and career development programs have been among the activities which have attracted the attention of the membership.

Luncheons became a popular forum and guest speakers have covered a wide spectrum of speakers, including: Senator Raynell Andreychuk,  a former Ambassador/Consul General and Provincial Court Judge in Saskatchewan; Pamela Wallin, national broadcaster and author; the Hon. Beverley McLachlan, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada; the Hon. Louise Arbour, a Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada; the Hon. Allan Rock, Q.C., then Minister of Justice; and John Rosen, defence counsel in the notorious Bernardo and Holmolka criminal trial. AWL had to deal with controversy among some women lawyers and academics over sponsoring Mr. Rosen at an AWL function. AWL’s executive and board of directors firmly believed that it was important to remind the profession that women lawyers also represent clients in challenging and unpopular cases and benefit from hearing about the decisions and experiences of others.

Members have also enjoyed many social events. The Annual Golf Tournament and Spring Celebration have become “must do” activities of AWL.

While AWL’s focus has been on the interests of women lawyers, it has always had the support of the legal profession as a whole. The Hon. Madam Justice S.L. Hunt McDonald led the early debate over offering memberships to both men and women lawyers. Her resolution unanimously passed and A. Webster Macdonald, Jr., Q.C. became the first male lawyer to take out a membership in AWL.

AWL remains committed to the interests of women in the legal profession and continues to welcome new members.

Where the original Steering Committee (founding members) are now:
Carolyn Phillips Appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta Nov. 29, 1994
Marsha Erb Appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta Nov. 15, 2001
The Honourable Madam Justice S.L. Hunt McDonald Appointed to the Provincial Court of Alberta April 7, 1995
Elaine McCoy, Q.C. Appointed to the Senate of Canada March 24, 2005
Shirley Jackson, Q.C. A senior crown prosecutor, Alberta Justice
Madeleine King President, Madeleine King & Assocs Ltd., Land Use and Civic Affairs Consultancy
M. Jane Rotnem A civil litigator practising independently
Catherine McCreary Member, BC Human Rights Tribunal and Governance Coach, Build Better Boards
Janet Russell Civil litigator, Scott Venturo LLP in Calgary
Michelle Stanners Interim Director, Making Treaty 7
Cynthia Hill Retired from the practise of law and now resides in Vancouver
Nadine Casey French Principal, Nadine Casey French Law Corporation, Westbank, British Columbia
Yvonne Gagne A non-practising lawyer and stay-at-home mom