UdeM animal-rights advocate wins Rhodes Scholarship

Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert

Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert

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With a solid academic record and wide community involvement, Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert gains free access to pursue a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Oxford.

Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert, an Université de Montréal graduate student and animal rights advocate, is one of 200 students worldwide to win a coveted Rhodes Scholarship to attend the University of Oxford starting next year – for free.

News of her win came as a bit of a shock to the 23-year-old.

"I was so happy, I didn't expect it at all," she said. "I am very touched to receive this scholarship. I am the first in my family to do doctoral studies. It's a symbolic and financial support that means a lot to me."

Her thesis director, UdeM philosophy professor Christian Nadeau, had nothing but praise for the young scholar. "She is one of the three most brilliant students I have had the opportunity to work with over the past 20 years," he said.

Bill Clinton, Roger Gaudry and Paul Gérin-Lajoie are among the past winners of the prestigious scholarship, which awards candidates who have "marked academic talent and high level intellectual ability."

In particular, applicants for a Rhodes must show "integrity, altruism, initiative, leadership skills and an interest in one's contemporaries [...] and the deployment of the energy necessary to make full use of one's talents."

Simoneau-Gilbert meets all these criteria, her thesis director said. "She is a student who not only does exceptional work from an intellectual point of view, but who has an exceptional organizational and work capacity and is committed on many fronts."

The cause closest to her heart

Both a fellow of the Centre de recherche en éthique de l'UdeM and the Groupe de recherche en éthique environnementale et animale, at Oxford the young scholar intends to continue defending the cause closest to her heart: animal welfare.

A horseback rider since childhood, she is a passionate advocate for greater protection of animals. To mark the 150th anniversary this year of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Montreal, she published a 375-page book recounting for the first time the history of the fight for animal rights in Quebec.

As a master's student in philosophy at UdeM, since 2018 she has been studying the foundations and evolution of legal personality, under the direction of Nadeau and his colleague Valéry Giroux.

At Oxford, she intends to study the moral behaviour of animals and their ability to meet certain standards – specifically, that they should be granted the legal status of persons not on the basis of their moral autonomy, but on the basis of their sensitivity to pleasure and pain.

The scholarship is good for two or three years, however long it takes to complete her degree.

After Oxford, she hopes to further her education yet again, in law, using her strong grounding in philosophy and ethics to defend animals in court. She is considering working in animal-welfare organizations as part of a team of lawyers.

'A matter of justice for all sentient beings'

Asked in her Rhodes selection interview why animal welfare is her top priority, Simoneau-Gilbert replied that it's "a matter of justice for all sentient beings, an issue related not only to non-human animals, but also to the environmental crisis, health issues, working conditions [and] food waste," adding that nothing prevents her addressing other major issues through the same lens, including the self-determination of peoples.

In 2014, while a college student at Cégep Marie-Victorin in Montreal, she travelled to Scotland to observe the national independence referendum firsthand, blogging about it for her history and civilization program. She was so energized by the experience she did it again in 2017, this time for the independence referendum in Catalonia, Spain. At Oxford, she intends to stay abreast of these and other political movements, always from a Quebec perspective.

At UdeM, the young academic has also been active on the philosophy department's Access to Equality and Climate Committee. In 2017, in the wake of larger societal debates on sexual harassment, Simoneau-Gilbert was in the vanguard when the department adopted guidelines for relations between professors and students, helping establish a better working and research climate at UdeM.

She was also a member of the women's committee of her department's student association, organizing numerous scientific and social activities aimed at highlighting the work of women in philosophy, and has volunteered to give several conferences, including one on the French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir in 2016.

Subsequently, she focused on the historical and political convergence between the feminist movement and the fight for animal rights, presenting several times the work of Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, who has shown how meat consumption relates to masculinity.

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