150+ Canadians Day 126: Rosalie Abella

Justice Rosalie Abella contributed to peace by doing groundbreaking work for equality in the Supreme Court of Canada. #Canada150

On July 1, 1946, Madame Justice Rosalie Abella of the Canadian Supreme Court was born in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, to parents who were Holocaust survivors.  Her father was a lawyer, appointed to be the defense counsel for displaced persons in the Allied Zone in southwestern Germany.   Rosalie grew up in Toronto after her family moved to Canada in 1950. She obtained her BA and LLB at the University of Toronto, and was called to the Bar in 1970 and practiced both civil and criminal litigation until she wasappointed to the Ontario Family Court at age 29, the youngest and first pregnant person appointed to Canada’s judiciary; appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1992;and the first Jewish woman to be on Canada’s Supreme Court.

Her interest and skills in fighting for human rights resulted in her appointment as the sole Commissioner of the 1984 Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, which developed the concept and term “employment equity”.

Her theories of “equality “ and “discrimination” were adopted first by the Supreme Court of Canada in its decision dealing with equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1989, and were later implemented by New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and South Africa and by the Canadian government.  She also served as Chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board (1984-89), Chair of the Ontario Law Reform Commission (1989 – 1992), and Boulton Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Law of McGill University (1988-92). As well, she was a commissioner on the Ontario Human Rights Commission, a member of the Ontario Public Service Labour Relations Tribunal, Co-Chair of the University of Toronto Academic Discipline Tribunal; a member of the Premier’s Advisory Committee on Confederation; and as Chair of the Study on Access to Legal Service by the Disabled.

Justice Abella is a prolific author, having written more than 90 articles and written or co-edited four books. She has been honoured as a Senior Fellow of Massey College (1989), a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1997), and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences  in 2007. She has been lectured and served on various boards at universities in North America and abroad.  She was also a member of the Canadian Judicial Council’s Inquiry on Donald Marshall, Jr.   Justice Abella has been active in Canadian judicial education, organizing the first judicial seminar in which all levels of the judiciary participated, the first judicial seminar at which persons outside the legal profession were invited to take part,  organized the fist national education program for administrative tribunals, and the first national conference for Canada’s female judges. She has been awarded 37 honorary degrees  and other notable honours such as The Distinguished Service award of the Canadian Bar Association (Ontario), The International Justice Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation; The Human Relations Award of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews; the Honourable Walter Tarnopolsky Human Rights Award and the Bora Laskin Award for Distinguished Service in Labour Law.

She is a compelling speaker and was reported by Michael Enright on the Sunday Edition of CBC in 2016 as having made Yale Law School graduates cry on the happiest day of their lives after commenting:

In these frenetically fluid, intellectually sclerotic, economically narcissistic, ideologically polarized, and rhetorically tempestuous times—a world that too often feels like it’s spinning out of control—we need a legal profession that worries about what the world looks and feels like to those who are vulnerable

Got a name in mind? Contribute to the list! Send us your suggested names on the Contact Us page.

Want to get 150+ Canadians straight to your inbox? Subscribe here.