First Indigenous judge of Supreme Court says pioneering female judges inspired supreme goal

By Cristin Schmitz

Law360 Canada (November 29, 2022, 1:29 PM EST) -- As the Supreme Court of Canada publicly welcomed its first Indigenous and 11th female member, Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin paid tribute to the other pioneering women jurists she said fired her ambition to one day join the nation’s highest court.

“Through determination, and also with the support of a dynamic group, I reached my goal of being a judge at the Supreme Court of Canada,” said the trailblazing judge, who at age 9 decided to become a lawyer, only to have a high school guidance counsellor tell her this was aiming too high “for a little girl, a francophone who came from northern Ontario.”

“Just watch me,” she thought.

Fast forward to Sept. 1, 2022, when Justice O’Bonsawin achieved her goal, elevated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from the Ontario Superior Court, where she had also been the trial court’s first female Indigenous judge.

Steeves Bujold, Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin and former CBA president Bradley Regehr at welcoming ceremony.

CBA president Steeves Bujold, left, Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin and former CBA president Bradley Regehr at welcoming ceremony.

“My journey to this court has not been an easy one, but it has been meaningful and rewarding,” a beaming Justice O’Bonsawin told family, friends and lawyers and judges gathered in Ottawa Nov. 28 for the Supreme Court’s “welcoming” ceremony.   

“I joined a dynamic court, where great jurists like Justice Bertha Wilson, Justice Claire L’ Heureux-Dube, Justice Beverly McLachlin and Justice Rosalie Abella have sat,” she said. “These women inspired me to want to sit on the highest court of our land. I hope that my journey to this court will inspire young women to pursue their dreams,” she told about 100 people in the Supreme Court’s walnut-panelled courtroom.

Summing up her personal credo, Justice O’Bonsawin said “I am a big believer that if you have a goal, work hard and never give up, you can make things happen and achieve those dreams,” she said, noting she “constantly” reminds her two sons that “perseverance is the key to success.”

“I think they’re tired of hearing me say that,” she smiled.

Justice O’Bonsawin said she loves to talk with youths and often tells them that, at times, in her journey “I have fallen down. I made mistakes. However, mistakes have been my teachers. And I have learned from those mistakes. I’ve always gotten up and continued — at times with trepidation — but always moving forward.”

“Our actions are reflections of ourselves,” she emphasized. “We must be proud of who we are and of our uniqueness.”

Justice O’Bonsawin also stressed that “I did not get to this court on my own. Many people supported, encouraged and mentored me along the way.”

She went on to thank, by name, her parents, in-laws, grandmother, close cousins and friends, her Grade 10 teacher who “encouraged me to follow my dreams in law,” many lawyers and judges who mentored her over the years, including First Nations leaders and Indigenous legal lights Murray Sinclair and Harry LaForme, as well as her PhD supervisor, her “ancestors” and her new colleagues for whose “heartfelt welcome” she expressed gratitude.

Thanking her husband of nearly 25 years, Ottawa intellectual property lawyer Pierre Robichaud, the judge paused, as her eyes welled up with tears. “For those that don’t know I’m very emotional,” said the judge, who also confessed she was “melting” under her red wool and ermine-trimmed ceremonial robes.

“I met Pierre on my first day at law school,” at the University of Ottawa, Justice O’Bonsawin recalled in French. “I was charmed by him from the very first moments. He’s always been my best fan and my strongest force. He gives me the best advice, and he’s done so throughout my career. When I was discouraged, Pierre always told me I was able.”

Bar leaders gathered to celebrate Justice O’Bonsawin’s appointment highlighted her accomplishments while also emphasizing the importance of her appointment to Canadians.

Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey

Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey

“Justice O’Bonsawin possesses the skills needed to serve the court in its time of transformation,” Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey told the audience, which included former Supreme Court justices Ian Binnie, Louise Charron and Michael Moldaver (who was succeeded by Justice O’Bonsawin).

“Her experience, standard of excellence and dedication to making our society better serve as the best possible testament to your addition to the Supreme Court of Canada,” said Downey, adding his congratulations to federal Justice Minister David Lametti and the Liberal government for its “remarkable choice.”

Law Society of Ontario treasurer Jacqueline Horvat said Justice O’Bonsawin has already left “a lasting mark on the legal landscape” as a “skilled and respected” practitioner, and in her work to improve the public’s access to justice.

Access to justice requires building a “people-centred justice system that breaks down barriers and is inclusive and reflective of all members of our society,” Horvat said. “With your appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada, you bring additional voice, perspective and inspiration, and so we celebrate your appointment and the opportunities it represents to broaden and enrich our justice system.”

Horvat also acknowledged that the historic nature of Justice O’Bonsawin’s appointment means “we also recognize the weight that these responsibilities may impose, as you are and will be, consciously by some and unconsciously by others, held to a different and more challenging standard than those who came to this court before you.”

“You are more than well-equipped to meet these challenges,” Horvat told the judge. “But this responsibility does not rest solely on your shoulders alone. It is up to each of us to support and stand with you, to listen and learn, and to ensure that the diverse perspectives and rich stories of Indigenous peoples are woven into the fabric of our justice system and integrated into the cultures of our communities.”

Horvat said “the spirit of inclusivity” the judge brings to her new role “is so important because it empowers and inspires others, including me, to celebrate our own personal real world stories and uniqueness. ... Your lived experience is a powerful one. It shows the world in a different light, helps people visualize themselves within the story, builds connection and purpose and creates the space for change.”

Quoting Bradley Regehr, the Canadian Bar Association’s first Indigenous president, CBA president Steeves Bujold told the audience “my heart is bursting with joy.”

“Your impressive and impactful career is a testament to your dedication to creating a just and fair society for all, and our country is better for it,” Bujold said. “We know that the road to reconciliation with Indigenous people is long. It is essential for all Canadians to deepen our understanding of the history, languages, cultures and legal traditions of Indigenous people who have lived on these lands since time immemorial,” he remarked. “As a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, I am confident that you will play a vital role in reviving Indigenous legal traditions that have been sidelined by centuries of colonization in Canada.”

Jill Perry, president of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada

Jill Perry, president of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada

Jill Perry, president of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, told the courtroom that Justice O’Bonsawin’s unique career “has clearly been guided by a concern for humanity in general, and a commitment to the area of mental health law in particular,” including the judge’s PhD research into applying the Gladue principles in the forensic mental health context.

“We know that we are in the middle of a mental health crisis in this country,” Perry noted, adding this also affects lawyers, who may be particularly susceptible to mental health challenges, according to a recent study into legal professionals’ well-being.

“People who suffer from mental illness are dangerously exposed to cascading legal problems,” Perry observed. Justice O’Bonsawin’s “record of commitment to mental health issues will serve this court and, in turn, our country, well in facing that challenge head-on.”

Peter Kryworuk, president of The Advocates’ Society, said his group celebrates “the historic nature” of Justice O’Bonsawin’s appointment, likening it to Justice Bertha Wilson’s 1982 swearing-in as the Supreme Court’s first woman judge — an occasion which fulfilled a dream long held by many.

“The same may be said today, 40 years later, of your appointment,” Kryworuk observed. “The realization of this dream, held by so many within and outside the justice system, will no doubt instil greater belief and trust in this institution to which we entrust the resolution of our most fundamental legal and constitutional disputes.”

Remarking that Justice O’Bonsawin’s name means “pathfinder” in the Abenaki language, he said, “with this appointment we know that you will continue to carve a path for the many who will follow.”

Photos by Cristin Schmitz

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