A Champion for Pay Equity

When Ontario's midwives went looking for a champion to take on their pay equity case, there was one woman who rose to the top of the list.

Mary Cornish is a smart and savvy lawyer and a fierce advocate for human rights. In her 40-year career, she has successfully championed many causes, including the fight to create Ontario’s Pay Equity Act. 

Early Years

Mary's father was a lawyer and a judge, so she was no stranger to the legal profession while growing up. In 1976, she was called to the Ontario bar. She was active in the women’s rights movement and she focused on social justice issues such as human rights and labour law. 

Lawyer Mary Cornish Newspaper Article with Headline "Top Gun"

York University, Alumni News, 1989

"It was quite a different era then," Mary explains.

"One of the things about women’s rights issues is that you make progress and then it goes back. You make progress and it goes back. It’s kind of like the #MeToo Movement and a lot of those issues are like what was being discussed in the eighties too. They’re still not dealt with in 2018."

Mary Cornish Magazine Article Headline "Tipping the Scales"

Business Journal, September 1988

A Champion for Midwives

Mary successfully obtained fair pay for hundreds of thousands of women workers.

In May 2013, the Association of Ontario Midwives approached her about their pay equity case. As Ontario’s most female-dominated profession, the pay equity gap for midwives is at least 48%.

"It was an important case dealing with a disadvantaged women’s profession," explains Mary. "Midwives are contractors who are dependent on one source of income, the government, in terms of funding. The case also dealt with what obligation the government has in compensation to set pay free of bias.”

Midwives provide evidence-based primary healthcare – prenatal care, labour and birth care, and care for the first six weeks after birth. Midwives provide care in hospitals, birth centres, in the community, and in the home. 

Association of Ontario Midwives Midwife gives exam

Ontario Midwife, Nicole Roach, at The Midwives Clinic of East York, Toronto

Women and trans people can choose either the care of a physician or a midwife for their pregnancy and only 4 out of 10 families in Ontario who would prefer a midwife are able to access midwifery care.

Mary also had a personal reason for taking on the midwives' case, which will be her last case before she retires.

"I had actually used a midwife back in the mid-eighties," she says, "back when it was still what they referred to as alegal. It wasn’t legal or illegal." The profession of midwifery was regulated in Ontario in 1994. 

Mary filed an application to the Human Rights Tribunal on behalf of Ontario midwives in November 2013. Still, it's a relatively fast-moving case, she explains, considering some federal pay equity cases take 20 years to resolve. 

A Champion for All

Mary believes everyone should be watching the Human Rights Tribunal's decision about Ontario Midwives very closely. She expects it will be announced shortly after the provincial election on June 7, 2018.

"Midwives do the most classic form of ‘women’s work.' The term midwife actually means ‘with women.’ So it represents for all women workers the importance of ensuring that kind of work, the work women do for women. For all of those people who value the reproductive choices of women, who value the importance of women being provided with proper maternal health care, this is an important issue."

In 2016, Mary was awarded the Order of Canada and an honorary doctorate at York University for her work over the past 40 years. Still, she believes there's a lot of work that needs to be done. 

"We still have a very wide pay gap," explains Mary. "The pay gap in Canada still ranges from about 26-30% on average. So there’s still a very long way to go before women have compensation equality, particularly women who operate in very vulnerable areas of employment.”

According to the Equal Pay Coalition, in Ontario, women on average earn only 70 cents on the male dollar. The gap is even more pronounced for women and trans people who are Indigenous, racialized, elderly, newcomers, or those who have a disability.

Mary Cornish with The Association of Ontario Midwives

Association of Ontario Midwives Press Conference, November 2013

If successful, the Ontario midwives' case will set precedent for people working in vulnerable sectors, particularly in the service sector, the retail industry, and healthcare. It might make it easier for them to make claims under the Human Rights Code.

"Some of the issues that will be decided by the case involve the use of a gender lens and gender-based budgeting in terms of governments," says Mary. "I think that will set its own precedent in general about the requirements of government to use a human rights lens when they’re deciding policy matters which affect disadvantaged groups."

Mary recently retired from her litigation firm in Toronto to work as a part-time legal consultant and to spend more time with her family. But she won't be done her litigation work just yet. At least, not until Ontario's midwives have the justice they deserve.

A champion until the very end.

Correction: Previous versions of this post reported on Mary's involvement with the high-profile case of Jane Doe v. Metropolitan Toronto (Municipality) Commissioners of Police, 1998. We would like to acknowledge Mary's involvement as well as the work of many others who brought Jane Doe's case to justice. We also described Jane Doe as a police officer. This was an error. This post has been updated.