How Gillian Hnatiw became a top advocate for survivors of sexual misconduct

In her work, Hnatiw helps clients choose from a range of imperfect legal pathways
Illustrated portrait of Gillian Hnatiw
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After her second year of law school, at the University of Toronto, Gillian Hnatiw took on her first case. The year was 2001, and she had started a summer position at Downtown Legal Services in Toronto. Hnatiw met with a trans woman who had visited an apartment that was listed for rent. On arrival, however, the landlord suddenly declared that the unit was no longer available. To Hnatiw, this looked like textbook discrimination, so she planned to file a human-rights complaint.

But she soon discovered a loophole in the law that permitted housing discrimination when there is a shared bathroom or kitchen. Her client, in the end, had no legal protection. “It was my first experience trying to use the law to address discrimination,” recalls Hnatiw, “and also coming up against the limits of what the law could do.”

Up to that point, Hnatiw had worried that law school was a mistake. The lofty discussions in the classroom seemed detached from the real world. “I felt like I was the only one with doubts,” she says. “It was very isolating.” Her perspective began to shift after that summer. “Once I had clients with real problems, it started to feel like law school was a good choice.”

Headshot of Gillian Hnatiw

Gillian Hnatiw

Principal, Gillian Hnatiw & Co.
Year of call: 2003

After law school, Hnatiw launched her career at Lerners LLP as an articling student, before becoming an associate and then a partner. “I never saw myself as a Bay Street type,” she says, “so I was surprised I liked it there.” As she built a broad civil litigation practice, she continued to seek out clients who lacked a clear path to justice. Today, she is one of the country’s leading experts on sexual misconduct and violence, as well as gender-based discrimination. In these areas of law, survivors have to choose from a range of imperfect legal pathways.

Imagine someone who has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. There are many legal options. One would be to leave the job and sue the employer for constructive dismissal. (In Canada, there’s no tort for sexual harassment.) Another would be to file an internal complaint with the organization’s HR department, which could see the harasser disciplined or terminated but can trigger retaliation. The individual can bring a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal, which will sometimes order employers to make systemic changes and pay nominal damages to survivors. Or the person might decide to stay silent and keep the matter private. Hnatiw takes the time to understand what each client sees as most important: money, systemic change, privacy or holding the harasser to account. “There are pros and cons to every legal pathway,” she says. “I don’t think there is one set of goals that is better than another.” No matter what her client identifies as the top priority, she will fight for it.

After 15 years at Lerners, Hnatiw moved her practice to a newly established litigation boutique. About two years later, in the fall of 2019, she started her own firm and called it Gillian Hnatiw & Co. This was an opportunity to be truly independent: to take on more cases that she cared about and run the business her way.

The firm has since grown to a team of nine. Beyond the relentless work on behalf of survivors, the firm also handles a wide array of civil-litigation work, including health, employment and administrative law. Outside of court, Hnatiw trains large organizations on how to recognize myths and stereotypes in sexual misconduct, so they can better identify it in the workplace. On top of that, she trains regulatory adjudicators who sit on disciplinary panels. Because their cases sometimes involve sexual misconduct, Hnatiw helps them unpack their own biases so they can weigh evidence without falling back on preconceptions.

This work allows her to use her legal skills to push for society-wide change. “She’s always thinking about the large-scale impact of our work,” says Molly Warwick, Hnatiw’s long-time law clerk. “She has what we jokingly refer to as ‘The Grand List of Legal Injustices That Need to Be Repaired.’” Most of them have to do with protecting the rights of women.

At the moment, Hnatiw is serving as senior counsel for the Mass Casualty Commission, investigating the causes and circumstances behind the 2020 shooting that began in Portapique and left 22 people dead. As a result, she’s been bouncing between Nova Scotia and her home in Toronto. From April to July, her three children (ages 9, 13 and 14) and her husband, Ian Campbell, a partner at Fasken, joined her out east. Hnatiw will continue to spend time in both provinces until October 2022.

Her work on the inquiry is horribly difficult. A violation was committed that has so mangled the lives of those involved that it might be impossible to achieve true justice. One thing, though, is certain: Hnatiw is the right person to have on the case.

Timeline of a litigator

1999: Hnatiw graduates from Queen’s University with a degree in history. “History overlaps with the law, especially if you see the law as a vehicle for social change,” she says. “History reinforces my optimism that change is slow but possible.”

2001: As a law student at the University of Toronto, Hnatiw takes a summer job at Downtown Legal Services, where she has her first experience representing real clients. “Connecting the law to human problems was something I very much enjoyed, as opposed to sitting in the classroom having philosophical debates about the law.”

2002: Hnatiw articles at Lerners LLP in Toronto.

2003: After getting called to the bar, she joins the firm as an associate.

2012: Hnatiw becomes a partner at Lerners.

2018: Hnatiw moves to Adair Goldblatt Bieber LLP, a new litigation boutique.

2019: In November, she launches her own firm: Gillian Hnatiw & Co. “Starting your own firm four months before a global pandemic is probably not ideal,” she says. “But I also didn’t have a lot of overhead at the time, so the financial pressures were relatively small. Mostly because we hadn’t had time to find the office.”

This is a story from our Fall 2021 Issue.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod. Photo by Kenya-Jade Pinto.