By: Maitland Shaheen*
Every year, on March 8th, we celebrate our mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and mentors for International Women’s Day. As we collectively continue to fight the long battle for gender equality, we must take each and every moment we can to celebrate the women who strive to make this world better. This year, we wish to praise the women who have advanced change in the legal profession in Canada. Once deemed only a “man’s job”, women across Canada have shattered the glass ceiling, working their way towards advancing an equal and just legal system.
As we take a look at a few of the women who have defined and shaped Canada’s legal system, we wish to thank these women as well as those who continue to break barriers and defy stereotypes to ensure that law is accessible and of service to everyone.
Photograph of Judge Helen Kinnear - Law Society of Upper Canada Archives
Helen Kinnear, QC, was the first woman to achieve a number of profound legal accomplishments in Canada. After graduating from Osgoode Hall in 1920, she opened her own legal practice, and in 1934, was the first woman in the British Commonwealth to be named a King’s Counsel. The following year, she was the first woman lawyer to appear before the Supreme Court of Canada.
Following a short political career, Kinnear became the first female judge appointed by the federal government in 1943 and the first woman in the Commonwealth to be appointed to county court.
Rosalie Silberman Abella smiles after being sworn in as a Supreme Court Judge during a ceremony at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on Oct. 4, 2004 - CP PHOTO, Jonathan Haywayrd
The Hon. Rosalie Abella, FRSC, was the first Jewish woman to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada.
Born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, Abella moved to Canada with her family at the age of four. Following law school at the University of Toronto, she worked in civil and family practice until appointment to the Ontario Family Court (now a division of the Ontario Court of Justice). She was both the youngest and first pregnant judge in Canadian history.
An expert in human rights law, Abella sat on the Ontario Human Rights Commission and was the Chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board. She was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2004.
Abella is a leader in employment equity in Canada. In 1983, she was appointed to oversee the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, where she developed strategies to reduce barriers in employment for women, minorities, Indigenous people and those with disabilities. Her recommendations have been adopted in a number of countries.
Roberta Jamieson to give 60th Convocation Lecture at the University of Waterloo - CBC News
Roberta Jamieson, OC, is a Canadian lawyer and First Nations activist. She was the first Indigenous woman to receive a law degree in Canada, the first non-parliamentarian to be appointed an ex-officio member of a House of Commons committee, and the first woman Ontario Ombudsman.
Jamieson graduated from law school in 1976, working as an advisor for government bodies such as the Indian Commission of Ontario, and later holding a decade-long tenure as the Ontario Ombudsman. She was the first woman Chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. She is currently the President and CEO of Indspire, a national nonprofit dedicated to Indigenous education and achievement.
Jamieson holds a number of awards for her work in Indigenous justice and alternative dispute resolution. She was awarded the Order of Canada in 1994 and was promoted to an Office of the Order of Canada in 2016.
Bertha Wilson - Supreme Court of Canada Collection, Michael Bedford
The late Bertha Wilson, CC FRSC was Canada’s first woman Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
Following law school, Wilson became both the first female associate and partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt. Her work there included founding the firm’s legal research department, the first of its kind in Canada. She was the first woman to be appointed to Ontario’s Court of Appeal in 1975, and to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1982.
Her influential work as a Justice include significant Charter interpretations of a woman’s right to choose, judicial review, and equality. Upon retirement, she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Louise Arbour - United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner
Louise Arbour, CC GOQ, is an influential name in international human rights law, currently serving as Canada’s UN Representative for International Migration, and jurist in residence with Borden Ladner Gervais LLP.
Arbour began her career as a Clerk for Justice Louis-Philippe Pigeon during her graduate law studies. She spent years as a Professor, and later Associate Dean, of Osgoode Hall, and served as the Vice-President of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. She was appointed to the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1987 and the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1990.
In 1996, Arbour was appointed Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. She indicted then-Serbian President Slobodan Milošević for war crimes, the first time a serving head of State was called to account before an international court.
Arbour served as Justice of the Supreme Court in Canada before returning to international law as the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. Her daughter, Emilie Taman, followed in her footsteps to become an influential criminal lawyer and political candidate in Ottawa, and in 2018 was named one of Canadian Lawyer’s Top 25 Most Influential.
Beverley McLachlin listens to a question during a news conference on her retirement in Ottawa on Dec. 15, 2017 - The Canadian Press, Justin Tang
The Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin’s effect on Canadian law is so profound, we wrote an entire blog post on her last year. As Canada’s first woman Chief Justice, McLachlin has undoubtedly made great strides towards women’s equality in the field of law.
Following years of practicing and teaching law, McLachlin (CC, PC, CStJ) was appointed to the County Court of Vancouver, and later the Superior Court of B.C. She quickly rose to become Chief Justice of the province’s Supreme Court, and was appointed a Puisne Justice of Canada in 1989.
McLachlin became Canada’s first female Chief Justice in 2000, holding the longest tenure of the position to date. In 2005, McLachlin performed the duties of Administrator of Canada when Governor General Adrienne Clarkson was hospitalized, providing royal assent to the Same-Sex Marriage Act. She is known for her strong legal decisions on issues such as Indigenous rights, assisted death, and hate speech. She currently serves as the first Canadian member on the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong.
Jody Wilson-Raybould - Eric Saide Photography
The Hon. Wilson-Raybould has blazed trails for nearly two decades in the legal profession, and made a significant impact on the intersections of Canadian law and politics.
A member of the We Wai Kai Nation, Wilson-Raybould has served as an advisor for the B.C. Treaty Commission, a councillor for We Wai Kai Nation, and Regional Chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations. Following law school, Wilson-Raybould worked as a provincial Crown Prosecutor in Vancouver.
In 2015, Wilson-Raybould was appointed Minister of Justice; the first Indigenous person to hold the position. She served three years in the influential role before stepping down from Cabinet in February over allegations of political interference from the Prime Minister’s office to meddle in a federal case. On her decisions made during the case, Wilson-Raybould said, “I was protecting a fundamental constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence and the independence of our judiciary. That's my job”.
Future Women of Change
Throughout the week we've shared some of the inspiring women we’ve had the honour of working with. We have no doubt these women will continue to be agents of change of their communities.
Want to keep apprised of the great work these women are doing for Level? Subscribe to our newsletter, like us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram and Twitter @leveljustice.
Maitland Shaheen is a Level volunteer and senior at the University of Ottawa, studying a joint honours BA in Communication and Political Science. An aspiring lawyer, she is passionate about human rights, feminism and justice.