Reflecting on a journey: Interview with Professor Wanda Cassidy

December 14, 2022

Some forty years ago a conference in Saskatchewan brought together Michael Manley-Casimir, Assistant Professor in the SFU Faculty of Education, and Wanda Cassidy, Director of the Schools Program for the British Columbia Legal Services Society. They exchanged insights about the dearth of educational programs for teachers (and prospective teachers) about important social justice and law-related issues, and the lack of pedagogically engaging resources for classroom use. These initial conversations led Wanda and Mike to secure seed funding in 1982 to conceptualize a centre in law education at SFU, which was followed by the creation of the Centre for Education, Law and Society -- the first such centre to be established at a Canadian university.

After more than 40 years at SFU, 25 of those at the helm of CELS, Faculty of Education Professor Wanda Cassidy will be retiring in December 2022. Below are reflections on some key CELS milestones and her own journey. 

Q: What do you think makes CELS unique?

A: There are very few centres focusing on law and social justice education, which are based at a university. Most agencies that provide law-related education are based in the courts or in the community. Being at a university and having an endowment gives us greater academic freedom to pursue research topics that are critically important to society and to education. Much of our research is directed towards knowledge mobilization, or ways to apply our research findings in real-life settings.

Q: Looking back, what do you see as the key challenges?

A: Our first challenge in the 1980s was to develop an integrated program of funded research, credit courses, and curricula for schools, which combined Mike’s expertise in school law and school policy, and my background in teacher education, pedagogy, and classroom practice. The second challenge was to get off the project-specific funding treadmill, so that we could plan long term and provide continuing support to our staff and research assistants.

Q: In the early years of CELS, a lot of work focused on elementary schools. Why?

A: While resources were beginning to emerge for secondary schools, particularly for the senior Law elective, there was nothing for elementary schools.  Yet, young children ask questions all the time about what is fair, what is private, who should make decisions, what rights they have, why they should obey a rule, or how to solve a problem. We developed a program using children’s literature to teach these concepts, including re-writing fairy tales as mock trials and conducting these trials with children in full costume at the local courthouse, with a real judge presiding.  Two books for teachers were published: Let’s Talk About Law in Elementary School, and Once Upon a Crime: Using Stories, Simulations, and Mock Trials to Explore Justice and Citizenship in Elementary School

Q: Where do you see major shifts in societal needs over the years?

A: The Centre has always had as its goal to address current social issues that are law-related and to educate young people to be informed citizens, willing and able to advocate for justice. The needs are ever present. In the first two decades, we conducted two widescale social studies assessments, which resulted in improved resources and support for social studies teachers and the citizenship education mandate. As we moved into the 21st century, we undertook a major four-year research and curriculum project funded by The Law Foundation of BC, called Action for a Just Society, which focused on identity, citizenship, environmental sustainability, and human rights. We were also involved in research to advance the ethic of care in schools, and in the past three years have been conducting research and developing resources for K-16 educators on Teaching Against Islamophobia

Q: Cyberbullying is one of the areas of your research, how did you become interested in this topic?

A: [It started] when I was involved in the “ethic of care” research project, working with teachers to build caring communities. Technology was proliferating and bullying was no longer limited to the schoolyard. Punishment-driven programs were ineffective, with some actually increasing bullying behaviours. I became interested in fostering “cyberkindness” among students and finding ways for schools and the wider society to build more caring and respectful online communities. 

Q: Your work in this area has had implications on the level of policy as well. Could you provide some examples?

A: Laws don’t change behaviour or attitudes, but they can provide a limit on what is considered acceptable. We provided input to the Canadian government on their revision of the Criminal Code, which added a clause making the posting of intimate images online without the person’s consent a criminal offence. We also were invited to make recommendations to the Province of Nova Scotia as they sought to develop cyberbullying policy that was research-based.  We submitted a paper to the Australian government on cyberbullying issues and solutions and used our research in schools to help shape the Vancouver School Board’s anti-cyberbullying policies and practices.  

Q: You are a successful administrator, a prolific scholar and an educator who has had an impact on generations of students. How do you do it all?

A: I have always had a great team around me. I am only where I am because of [their] support and collaboration. My priorities have always been centred on my family, and the relationships I build with colleagues and students. My work is driven by my values and passions. Each of us has a purpose here on Earth to contribute in a meaningful and positive way. I have always felt this strong purpose to spend my time on things that are important to society and the wider picture.