Retiring Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella optimistic about Canada’s march toward equality


Outgoing Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella says Canada has made steady progress toward a more equitable society during her decades in law, though she says much more should be done to include the groups still being left behind.

“We’re in a lot better place now than we were,” Abella said in an interview with the CBC’s chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton.

“But we have a long way to go.”

Abella offered that assessment just weeks before the day she is due to retire from the court — July 1, when she turns 75, the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices.

You can watch her full interview on Rosemary Barton Live, which is available on Gem, the CBC’s streaming service.

Abella was nominated to the Supreme Court by Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2004. She is the first Jewish woman and the first former refugee to serve on the high court bench.

Abella was born in a Displaced Person’s Camp in Stuttgart, Germany in 1946 before coming to Canada in 1950.

Abella helped shape laws on disability, employment equity

In her interview with Barton, Abella reflected on a career which shaped numerous landmark changes to Canadian law, specifically for disadvantaged groups.

Before joining the Supreme Court, Abella led the Ontario Study on Access to Legal Services by the Disabled in 1983 and was the sole commissioner for the federal Royal Commission on Equality in Employment in 1984.

Her legal theories on equality and discrimination, developed as part of the royal commission, were adopted by the Supreme Court in 1989.

Abella said those advancements reflected what she sees as a key principle of law — protecting people’s rights while considering what she called “the context of the time.”

“There’s a difference between stability and stagnation,” Abella said. “We cannot make decisions that are rooted in a hundred years of tradition.”

Rosalie Abella, age two, poses with her parents in Germany, where they lived before moving to Canada. (Rosalie Abella)

She acknowledged Canada has not always been quick to respond to the needs of marginalized groups. Abella said the country paid little attention to issues facing Indigenous communities in the 1970s, though the court has become more responsive since.

“[The court] should be aware of the world we live in and move with the times, when someone brings the case to us that feels like the right place to make change,” she said.

“So we don’t always do it. But we did with Indigenous rights,” she said. 

“We did what we did in every area of rights and I’m proud of that.”

Abella is set to be replaced at the court by Justice Mahmud Jamal, another Ontario judge. He was nominated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this week.

Jamal will also make history as the first person of colour to join the country’s highest court.

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