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Mahmud Jamal says being the first person of colour nominated to Supreme Court is a ‘tremendous responsibility’

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Supreme Court nominee Justice Mahmud Jamal told MPs and senators today his nomination to become the first person of colour ever appointed to Canada’s highest court could help build trust in Canada’s public institutions and justice system.

Jamal reflected on his history-making nomination during a Tuesday afternoon question-and-answer session with Parliament’s justice and human rights committee.

“I’m aware of the responsibility,” Jamal told the committee members. “I’m very, very mindful of the responsibility that comes with that role.”

WATCH: Supreme Court nominee Mahmud Jamal discusses judicial activism

Justice Mahmud Jamal spoke with MPs and senators on Tuesday before his appointment to the court in the coming days. 2:49

Jamal was nominated to the court by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on June 18. He has served on the Court of Appeal of Ontario since 2019.

Jamal was born in Kenya to a Ismalli Muslim family originally from India. His family relocated to England before moving to Edmonton when Jamal was around 14 years old.

If appointed, Jamal will take the seat being vacated by Justice Rosalie Abella, who will retire from the court on July 1, her 75th birthday.

Jamal will become the 88th judge in the more than 140-year history of the court if his nomination is confirmed.

Jamal says more diversity ‘engenders trust’

In response to a question about the significance of his nomination to the court, Jamal recalled his 2019 appointment to the Court of Appeal in Ontario.

He said he was “overwhelmed” by the response of people of colour in the legal world after his appointment.

The response to his latest nomination has been “exponentially” larger, he said, reflecting a desire for better representation in the judiciary.

“Anybody who is from a racialized community, a minority, has a tremendous responsibility and so I am very, very mindful of that,” Jamal said during his virtual appearance with the committee.

“What people say is that they really do see that public institutions are open to them. That they have hope. That they can see their own faces reflected in the judiciary. I think it gives an aspiration. I think it engenders trust in public institutions.”

‘Reconciliation is all about respect’

Jamal was not permitted to respond to questions about his legal opinions or views on cases that could wind up before the Supreme Court — though MPs did tease out some of his broader views on the law and the responsibilities of judges.

He also addressed questions about the judicial system’s role in reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

“I think reconciliation is all about respect,” Jamal said.

He described a summer he spent working with Métis councils in Alberta before he attended law school as a turning point in his understanding of Indigenous issues.

“That was an eye-opening experience for me,” Jamal said. “It started to disabuse me of a lot of my stereotypes, because I think we all have unconscious biases in some measure.”

In accordance with the guidelines for his appearance, Jamal did not respond directly to a question about the recent adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

But in an earlier answer, he pledged to deliver clear and “reasonably” brief rulings on cases that appear before the court.

“Ordinary Canadians have a right to understand what their highest court is saying, what it is deciding and why it is deciding the way it is,” he said.

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