June 19, 2023

Lifelong learner retires after successful career

Jonnette Watson Hamilton taught at UCalgary Law for 30 years
Jonnette Watson Hamilton

Jonnette Watson Hamilton was born in Medicine Hat, Alberta and grew up in the Crown Village of Ralston, Quebec City, Ottawa and Medicine Hat.  

After graduating with an BA from the University of Alberta and an LLB from Dalhousie University, she practiced law from 1978 to 1991 in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, a small city between Red Deer and Edmonton For her articles and the first four years of her practice, she worked on a wide variety of files, ranging from federal prosecutions under the Tax Act, to rolling farm assets into newly incorporated companies, and all types of family law and criminal defence work. She quickly progressed in the firm and became a partner within eighteen months of being admitted to the Bar, after two of the three lawyers she joined were appointed judges.  

Once she made partner, and given the demand for women in family law practice, Jonnette began to focus more on family law to support the firm’s growth, as well as corporate commercial and dependent adult work. She was also appointed to the Farm Debt Review Board and travelled around central Alberta mediating disputes between insolvent farmers and their creditors for five years in the late 1980s. 

"Working in a small town had its advantages. I was able to foster meaningful relationships with my clients. You practice law holistically in small towns, as you live with the results of your practice a lot longer. There’s also a lot of fairly immediate gratification that comes with working in a smaller centre."

Drawn back to academia for graduate studies  

After more than 13 years in practice, Jonnette decided to return to academia and enrolled in an LLM program at Columbia University. Her graduate studies focussed on the intersection of feminist legal theory and legal ethics, a topic motivated by her experience practicing law as a woman in small-town Alberta.  

“During my time at Columbia University, I learned the most from my classmates who came from around the world, second most from the city of New York, and third most from the law school,” says Jonnette. “That said, what I learned in Kellis Parker’s course “Jazz Roots Revisited: The Law that Slaves Made” course remained a constant source of inspiration for me for the next 30 years.”  

After completing her graduate studies, she immediately moved back to Alberta to be closer to her family. She initially obtained a one-year position at the University of Calgary Faculty of Law, which, after eight years of short-term positions, led to a more permanent position that lasted the next 22 years.  

First-year Property was only one of the 20 different course Jonnette taught in her time at UCalgary. Starting out in Legal Research and Communication, Commercial Transactions and Alternative Dispute Resolution, she ended her career teaching Property, Property Theory, Law & Literature, Legislation, and the Graduate Seminar in Legal Research and Methodology. 

Found new ways to engage students in-person and online 

She taught each course differently. While many first-year Property students might not have been fans of her Socratic teaching method in that course, she was known to develop meaningful relationships with students throughout the term and support their learning in every way she can.  

“The first time I taught Property Theory, it was a mid-afternoon class. Students often got groggy at that time of day, so I started baking cookies to provide an energy boost. This started a chain reaction, as students started taking turns bringing baked goods to class,” says Jonnette. “In addition to being delicious treats and an incentive to attend class, it also made for a meaningful discussion on the sharing of goods.” 

Her passion for teaching earned her the Students’ Union Teaching Excellence Award in 2018, and the law school’s Howard Tidswell Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence in 2008 and 2012. 

As classes shifted online during the 2020 pandemic, Jonnette developed innovative methods of keeping the students comfortable and engaged, especially when discussing and applying counter-narrative theories from critical race theory, feminist theory and disability theory in her Law and Literature class. “Many topics are difficult to discuss in person when everyone has body language cues to reflect on. Teaching more controversial subject-matter over Zoom, without the ability to ‘read the room’ certainly presented new challenges,” explains Jonnette.  

However, she looks back fondly on this class as she witnessed students supporting one another and actively engaging in the theory and fiction readings. Second-year students took cues from third-year students who had experienced in-person learning in their first year. Dividing the larger class into smaller groups further facilitated discussions, especially when the students began mixing Chat with oral participation, which helped to foster a collegial and comfortable environment for all.  

Heading back to school

While she has retired from teaching, Jonnette is keeping busy. She was working on five papers for publication in the first few months of her retirement and still attending conferences. She has also been admitted to a graduate program in history to learn new research methodologies and theories and to focus on Canadian Prairie farm women lives 1930-1945. She loves learning and plans to continue her educational journey well into retirement.  

"I believe that any job can be wonderful if you work with great people. I enjoyed working with incredibly bright, well-educated, and kind colleagues, staff and students, all of whom know how to formulate and engage in rational argument."