Cecilia Benoit’s ground-breaking research with vulnerable groups, from at-risk mothers in Victoria to sex workers across the country, has been recognized with a Governor General’s Award for gender equality achievement.
“It’s very exciting to recognized by Status of Women [Canada] for gender equality,” said Benoit, 62, who is among six women who will receive the award at a presentation in Winnipeg in November. “I feel I must share this award with the many people I worked with who helped.”
The award was established in 1959 to commemorate the Persons Case. In 1929, a group of prominent Canadian women, including Victoria’s Nellie McClung, successfully petitioned the court to clarify the legal term “person” to include women. This led to women being able to participate in politics.
“The women we honour today … are strong leaders and inspiring role models,” said Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu in a statement. “As professionals, volunteers and advocates, they have demonstrated how people with passion and commitment can change the lives of women and girls for the better.”
Benoit has worked at the University of Victoria for 25 years in the sociology department and more recently at the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.
She is from the Qalipu Mi’kmaw First Nation, was raised in a family of 11 children in small-town Newfoundland and was encouraged to pursue an education.
“All along it was about women in society and inequalities,” she said, noting it has been satisfying to see her work influence policy and laws. When she started her extensive research on midwifery and maternity care, it was a practice largely shunned by the medical establishment.
“We’ve gone from banning it to having it available in every province,” said Benoit, who has a daughter.
Her research and advocacy about at-risk pregnant women and mothers with substance-abuse issues helped establish HerWay Home, a James Bay outreach program with more than $5 million in funding in 2012.
“Clients are at the centre of this program. The design is really what’s best for them,” Benoit said.
In the 1990s, she started working with Peers Victoria and began her decades-long research on the sex-work industry. Benoit said this marked a shift in her process by including more lived-experience researchers.
Rachel Phillips, executive director of Peers, said Benoit’s research helped the organization connect with police, all levels of government and health officials to move forward on agendas respectful of sex workers’ views and research.
“We hired sex workers as co-workers and researchers. Many went on to continue this work,” Benoit said, adding she has also mentored many graduate students who sought her out. Her next phase of research projects expand on a national study of sex workers and look at street-entrenched youth.
“Cecilia is somebody who has made Canada a better place through her work. She has made us more accepting of vulnerable populations,” said Tim Stockwell, director of the addiction-research centre. “She is acutely aware of societal attitudes and stereotypes, especially where they could take us. Her research has given voice to people who are not usually heard.”