At 41 years old, Audrey Campsall made the decision to go to law school because she was determined to change the law for children.
Campsall has lived in Oak Bay for 17 years now, but she grew up outside Kingston, Ontario.
Campsall’s father died when she was 11, which led to her and her six siblings being put into the foster system.
“Growing up as a foster child, I could see that children didn’t really have a great life if they didn’t have parents to look after them,” said Campsall. “Even when they had parents to look after them – maybe it was not so great.”
As a 28-year-old single mother, Campsall was working as the vice president of a material manufacturing company in Quebec. Wanting to spend more time with her two children, Campsall decided to start an antique business in the Laurentian Mountains where she lived.
Across the highway from her antique shop was a reform school called the Boys’ Farm and Training School.
“Children who were in trouble would get sent there,” she said.
The administrator of the school was a customer of Campsall’s and one day asked for help with a particular boy at the school.
“He was quiet and gentle, but he wouldn’t learn, he wouldn’t speak,” said Campsall. “They didn’t know if he could read or write. He had been with them for about six months and had to be let out in another six months because he was turning 18.”
Campsall gave him a job at her shop sweeping and tidying up and spent time with him. Eventually she brought him home to her children and the boy started speaking to them and opening up.
The boy could in fact read and write, and by the time the six months was up, he was acting normally, said Campsall.
“It doesn’t often take a long time. It just takes somebody who cares.”
As time went on, the school kept giving Campsall kids they were having trouble with. She fell in love with one child in particular, who ended up being the reason she went into law.
After a few years, Campsall tried to adopt the boy, who was then almost eight years old. However, she was told she could not adopt because she was a single mother.
“They wouldn’t let me see him again,” said Campsall. “He ended up committing suicide.”
It was in that moment that Campsall decided she was going to change the law.
“I said, ‘this is absolutely ridiculous.’ How can they take a child who has nobody and say you can’t be part of a family just because I didn’t have a husband?”
After a short-lived second marriage and another child, Campsall applied for law school at McGill University. McGill was reluctant because of her age, but Campsall had support from her antique shop customers who had connections at McGill and knew what she was trying to do. The university agreed to let her apply on the condition that she complete a qualifying year with at least 85 per cent in every course of their choosing.
Campsall got through the year and was one out of five mature applicants chosen out of 505 to attend.
After graduating McGill with a double degree in civil law and common law, Campsall turned down two job offers at the largest law firms in Canada in favour of doing research for McGill for free for a year.
“Neither of them had a family law division,” said Campsall, justifying her decision. “I didn’t do all of this to make money.”
Campsall’s research involved comparing the state of children in Canada to the United States, France and Britain. She was able to get specific information from Statistics Canada and the RCMP, and what she found horrified her.
“Canada said they had under 10 per cent of children living under the poverty line. I found it was more than 20 per cent,” said Campsall. “They would take only the children who had lived under the poverty line their whole life. My argument was if you let a child live under the poverty level even for two or three years, that’s too much.”
She discovered the biggest reason for children living below the poverty level in Quebec was unpaid child support.
She saw parents who couldn’t afford it having to go to court because their child support wasn’t being paid.
If one parent was not paying the child support they were supposed to be paying, Campsall believed the government should step in.
“My recommendation was that the minister of revenue collect child support,” said Campsall. “If child support was paid, the child poverty level in Canada would drop by one-half.”
Thanks in part to Campsall’s research and recommendations, that is now the law in Quebec. One of the other laws Campsall pushed to help change was surrounding single parents being able to adopt children.
She often went to conferences and shared her research with people around the world.
In 1997, Hillary Clinton invited Campsall to the White House because Clinton got a hold of Campsall’s research and wanted to meet her.
“Hillary Clinton sponsored the second world children’s conference. She used my research to write her speech on children,” she said.
Campsall moved to B.C. in 1997 to be closer to her son and his wife who were having their first baby.
She planned to continue practicing law in B.C., but first she had to write the Bar to be able to work in another province. Before she wrote the transfer exams however, she suffered a severe injury when she fell off a ladder trimming a pear tree in her backyard. She hit her head on the cement curb and smashed her right hand along with three vertebrae. It took her six months to get back on her feet and another three years to get through the pain and problems that came along with the accident. She decided instead to take an early retirement.
“I was fine not practicing law, because it wasn’t the practice of law that I wanted to do originally anyway, it was law reform – and I had done that,” said Campsall.