Published On Tue Nov 24 2009
Osgoode Hall Law School professor Alan Young paces leisurely. Standing before his Criminal Law I class, he begins to discuss a 1954 murder case.
"Here’s a guy who’s impotent," he says. "He goes to a prostitute …"
Young stops. Dozens of eyes dart quizzically from laptop keyboards to the source of the brazen interruption.
Even at diverse York University, the woman in the front row is a curious sight. She takes notes on an unlined piece of white paper. Her arms are tattooed. Her brown hair is streaked pink. And her bespectacled gaze is firm.
In private, she will confess that Osgoode scares her, that she doesn’t know if she belongs, that she doubts she is the intellectual equal of her classmates – who "look like law school students and talk like law school students and have the background a law school student should have."
Here, staring impassively at Young from a distance of two metres, she appears to be daring an eminent lawyer to argue with her over semantics.
Young, the civil libertarian behind a constitutional challenge of Canada’s prostitution laws, instead offers a smile. "I knew you were going to do that, actually," he says. "It’s about the only time I actually say ‘prostitute.’ Anyway, let’s stop politicizing now."
But this is not politics. This is personal. Young knows full well.
Before Wendy Babcock was one of his students, she was one of his witnesses.
Hooker with a heart of gold. It charms. It sells. And Babcock is now selling herself again.
Not her body. Her intellect, her work ethic, her tenacity as an advocate, her desire to rectify injustices. She is selling herself as an investment in Canada’s future.
Osgoode will cost $18,000 a year. Babcock was homeless as recently as September. She needs a benefactor or two. A fundraiser Sunday night at Goodhandy’s, the Church St. "pansexual playground," raised about $1,500.
Babcock, an effervescent and articulate 30-year-old with a propensity for big hugs and an earnest desire to run for political office within the next decade, could make the Pretty Woman-meets-Legally Blonde movie pitch with ease.
She tells her story, perhaps perplexingly, with her perpetual smile intact. A defence mechanism, she explains. "I never wanted to show anyone pain," she says, "so I tried to show them normality."
Raised in an Etobicoke family she says was abusive, Babcock left home as a preteen, and entered the Children’s Aid system at 13 or 14.
At 15, she says she began trading sex for the money she needed to pretend to be a "normal kid." With the cash she earned from the man who took her virginity, she paid for her high school semi-formal dress.
She dropped out at 16. She slept on the street and in shelters. Because the only respectable jobs available to her offered longer hours for less pay, she kept returning to sex work.
She quit in 2003, when her friend Lien Pham was murdered by a client. The world, she realized, did not much care about the lives of sex workers. She did. So she founded the Bad Date Coalition, a group that produces a monthly pamphlet with information about abusive clients, and runs an abuse hotline.
She found a job as a harm reduction worker with Street Health, where she earned a reputation as a tireless advocate for and counsellor to her former colleagues.
Taking an OSAP loan that she is still paying back, Babcock earned a sterling academic average at George Brown College.
She received a Public Health Champion Award from the City of Toronto. And she earned entrance into prestigious Osgoode, one of only 10 or so students in her class of 290 accepted without the years of university usually required.
With her degree, she wants to work on behalf of the marginalized and ignored to amend a justice system she sees as just only for the comfortable majority.
Through her personal and work experiences, she says, she has come to understand problems many do not know exist. "Some people see the most obvious barriers that laws can impose on people," she says. "I can see the other barriers."
She wants to fix Children’s Aid. She wants to change the adoption rules that prevent her from contacting the now 11-year-old son she was forced to surrender when she was homeless in 2003.
She wants to protect sex workers, build affordable housing and create economic opportunity for both poor children and their parents – because, "of course, you can’t eradicate child poverty until you eradicate adult poverty."
She is persuasive. She is endearing. But her life is nothing if not complicated.
Babcock faces an assault charge related to an August incident involving her then-boyfriend, Stephen Haggert. She says the charge will be dropped; Haggert says it was a minor, one-time occurrence and he never wanted her arrested.
He quickly scribbles down and reads a statement in which he praises her "ambition and focus," her "ability to succeed," and her commitment to mistreated children. "I feel strongly," he says, "that all those that become aware of Wendy and her mission should do whatever they can to support her."
Even though she is actively seeking financial support, Babcock says, unprompted, that she is not an especially good or altruistic person.
"No, no, no," she says. "That’s not the case at all. I’m not."
But why, if not for a heart of gold, does she plan to devote her life to the betterment of others’ lives?
Therapy. If she can eliminate the barriers that have made her existence so difficult, she says, the barriers will finally have meaning.
"I’m not like, ‘I want to go law school so I can help everyone.’ I’m like, ‘I want to go to law school because it was really s—-y growing up and this would make me feel better.’ If I could change it, I could heal."
Babcock has countless boosters. Osgoode classmate Justin Dharamdial, a Queen’s alumnus who attended the Sunday fundraiser, says she has prompted him to ponder issues he had never considered.
Street Health supervisor Mary Kay MacVicar, who insisted a skeptical Babcock apply to Osgoode, says she has become an inspiration to the agency’s clients.
Michelle van Looy, a George Brown classmate, praises Babcock’s get-it-done spirit and ability to make friends with the people with whom she disagrees.
"Wendy could move mountains. She just really needs support to be able to do it," says van Looy. "If we can just get enough money together to put her through law school, she can do incredible things."
But can Babcock get through Osgoode even if she gets the money? She has doubters, too.
She missed two weeks of school this fall when she was hospitalized for reasons she declines to discuss. Det. Wendy Leaver of the Toronto police sex crimes unit, with whom Babcock has done outreach work, said she is concerned Babcock’s health issues might make the Osgoode workload overwhelming.
Babcock was dismissed as a spokeswoman at the advocacy group Sex Professionals of Canada in 2007. She says she and others clashed with executive director Valerie Scott; Scott says Babcock became unreliable despite her obvious gifts.
"There’s just something in her – she has the drive, she has the intellectual capacity," Scott says. "I’d love to see her IQ level; that girl is far, far from stupid. I really hope she does well.
"But does she have the emotional maturity to handle the pressure of law school? That’s my grave doubt. I don’t want her to get chewed up by that machine."
In some ways, Babcock seems ideally prepared to use the machine. She appears to have memorized the statistical results of every study she has ever perused. She can tell you what is wrong with the laws of both Bob Rae and Venezuela.
She is convinced she will graduate and thrive.
Asked for a response to her skeptics, she points to her history of against-the-odds achievement. She knows school is difficult; she knows she is up to the task.
And yet, for all the confidence she projects, she cannot silence the stigmatizing judge inside her own head – the one who whispers to her, as she sits in her Osgoode classes, that she is still "Wendy the foster kid," "Wendy the group home kid," "Wendy the ho."
"I hope one day that goes away," she says.
And that it is replaced by, say, "Wendy the lawyer?"
"I’m looking forward," she says, "to the day when it’s `Wendy Babcock.’"
She smiles. "Or Wendy Babcock, prime minister."