By Megan Seto, Third Year English Common Law student
Tax policy is not the traditional battleground for matters of equality. Indeed, the facts of Symes v. Canada are more evocative of the long-held “mommy wars” than as a setting for a substantive analysis on the gendered nature of caregiving. Beth Symes was a lawyer and mother of two children. She claimed the salary of her nanny as a business deduction for income tax purposes. Justice L’Heureux-Dubé challenged the male majority in its ruling that women did not disproportionately incur child care expenses, regardless of the fact that women carried the burden of the social costs to child care.
Justice L’Heureux-Dubé dissent underlined what she described as law from the perspective of the stereotypical businessman, rather than of the “reality of the businesswoman”. Symes v. Canada undeniably raised an issue that the legal profession still struggles with today: the retention of women in the practice of law. This case illustrates Justice L’Heureux-Dubé’s ability to recognize the diversity of the female experience. Beth Symes case could have easily been about working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers or of class polarization. Instead, the progressive discourse of Justice L’Heureux-Dubé’s dissent helped provoke the discussion of gender equality principles in the boardroom and at law firms. Since this 1993 decision, the dialogue in the legal profession has been about maternity leave policies, the criteria for partnership, and alternative employment arrangements for working mothers.
Justice L’Heureux-Dubé demonstrated how a high level dissent has the impact of shaping dialogue regarding the lives of contemporary women.