Eleni Nicolaides Spotlight: The Intersection of Rights, Advocacy, and Public Policy

Posted on Thursday, July 29th, 2021

The role of human rights and advocacy by individuals and interest groups have played, and continue to play, a critical role in Canadian society. Formed on common interest or concern, these actors seek to influence public policy to benefit themselves or their causes, which can have broader implications on society at large.

As a political science student, PhD Candidate Eleni Nicolaides' research provides an empirical assessment of how legal mobilization by Canadian interest groups shape policy change. Investigating the intersection of rights, advocacy, and public policy, Eleni is keenly focused on the impact of legal mobilization on judicial decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada and action taken in response.

How would you explain your research to someone who wasn't in your program?

In general, I study Canadian law, politics, and public policy. So, I research Canadian law (including the constitution, courts, judges, and judicial rulings), how it affects (and is affected by) politics, and the resulting public policies (or government actions).

My existing publications have examined topics like medical assistance in dying policy and the notwithstanding clause, discussing how judges and politicians interpret what the constitution (e.g., the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) requires in terms of public policy.

More specifically, my doctoral research looks at interventions in constitutional law cases before the Supreme Court of Canada from 2009-2019. These are cases where the government policy is being challenged on constitutional grounds, such as the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments, the rights contained in the Charter, or other components of the Canadian constitution.

I am looking at 70 cases and around 600 interventions, on policies involving religious exemptions, safe injection sites, hate speech, senate reform, sex work, the right to strike, medical assistance in dying, mandatory minimum sentences, pay equity, and much more. A wide variety of actors from governments, rights groups, and various private or public interest advocacy groups made interventions in these cases.

I am trying to figure out what types of groups are often successful in having their policy positions adopted by the Supreme Court of Canada. I then see how relevant politicians react to these cases and rulings in terms of policy responses, and how various interest groups might continue to mobilize to influence legislatures and the public.

Why is your research important to you?

As a scholar of Canadian law, politics, and public policy, I think it is important that we recognize the significant role that courts and judges play in making public policy, especially in the post-Charter era. That is why I think it is important to study courts as another venue for policy-making, and to pay attention to the groups going to court.

Judges are also political, and it is important to understand the power they wield over policy. In Canadian law and politics, there has not been much attention to interventions in the past decade, so I think my research is an important contribution, and one that takes a different approach to prior research.

What do you wish your colleagues/friends/family knew about your work?

For friends/family outside of academia, being a Ph.D. student or candidate involves a lot of different things that many might not realize: dissertation research, publications, conferences, research assistant work, teaching or teaching assistant work, program or course development, hiring committees, and the list goes on.

Completing a Ph.D. is difficult, but completing a Ph.D. during a pandemic is a challenge that adds a lot of stress and uncertainty. I hope all graduate students take precautions to stay safe and take extra care of their mental health during this time.

Have you learned/discovered anything since beginning your studies at Guelph that's surprised you? If so, what?

What pleasantly surprised me is how many classes are offered at the University of Guelph for students who study law and politics. They really get to learn about so many different aspects of the field, and it is a pleasure as a teaching assistant to get to help with a variety of classes that really interest me.

I also sat on the committee that recently developed the new Justice and Legal Studies program here at Guelph, which I think is another really exciting development for students who are interested in what I, and so many other professors here, research.

What are you most proud of?

I am proud of the publications that I have been able to work on throughout my graduate studies. I have three published, and two more in progress. One of my recent co-authored pieces, “A Paper Tiger No More? The Media Portrayal of the Notwithstanding Clause in Saskatchewan and Ontario,” was published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, which was a particularly proud moment. I am looking forward to publishing from my dissertation research.

Another proud moment was getting a SSHRC scholarship, so I have some more time to research.

What do you plan to do with your degree/plans for the future?

I would love to be fortunate enough to stay in academia and become a professor. I enjoy the research and teaching. I come from a family of teachers. Teaching is something that I would love to do more of once I’m done my Ph.D., because that’s one of the things that’s hard to balance with your research.

There is something very special about teaching students something new, reading great papers, listening as students really grasp the concepts, or being able to answer questions.

Is there a fun or interesting fact about yourself that you'd like to share?

I named my cat, Ruthie, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Maybe I will name the next pet in honour of a Canadian judge!

Select Publications

Nicolaides, Eleni, and Matthew Hennigar. 2018. "Carter Conflicts: The Supreme Court of Canada's Impact on Medical Assistance in Dying Policy." In Policy Change, Courts, and the Canadian Constitution, edited by Emmett Macfarlane, 313-334. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Eleni Nicolaides and Dave Snow, "A Paper Tiger No More? The Media Portrayal of the Notwithstanding Clause in Saskatchewan and Ontario," Canadian Journal of Political Science, 2020, doi.org/10.1017/S0008423920000876.

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