150+ Canadians Day 86: Bertha Wilson

Image: Michael Bedford, photographer (Supreme Court of Canada website)

Bertha Wilson contributed to peace with her imaginative and humane legal decisions in judicial cases involving human rights. #Canada150

Bertha Wilson was admitted to Dalhousie Law School in 1954 and was called to the Nova Scotia Bar in 1957 and of Ontario in 1959. “From my very first day of classes, I knew the law was my thing,” she said. “I just soaked it up like a sponge.” She graduated in 1957, near the top of her class.

Bertha practiced law from 1958 to 1975 with the large Toronto firm Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt, where she specialized in legal research and opinion writing on a wide range of subjects for other lawyers. She was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in December 1975.

In 1982, after intense feminist pressure to name a woman to the Supreme Court, Wilson was appointed. Since then she participated in several Supreme Court decisions, one of the most momentous of which is probably striking down Canadian abortion law in early 1988. In the same year she was appointed a commissioner on the Erasmus-Dussault royal commission on native issues. She served on the Supreme Court from 1982 to 1991.

Allan Hutchison wrote of her in The Globe and Mail upon her retirement, “…her experience as a woman made it more likely that she would understand and champion the history and hopes of Canadian women… her judgments were more likely to be received differently – in negative and positive ways – than those of male judges.”

In 1991 she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and in 1992 she was named Companion of the Order of Canada. Bertha Wilson passed away in Ottawa on April 28, 2007.

Speaking of the role of the judiciary in the new age of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms…

“we are somewhat in the position of space travelers leaving the gravitational comfort of earth; we have to learn new ways to cope with unfamiliar and uncharted horizons.”

Remarks Made at the Superior Court Judges’ Seminar” (August 1987)

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