Michelle O’Bonsawin: Parliamentarians hear court’s best choice



Speaking to parliamentarians, new Supreme Court Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin said she hoped her unique perspective would allow her to make a ‘lasting contribution’ as the first Indigenous person chosen to serve on the highest court from Canada.

“I hope that this experience, both substantive, personal, and also my professional experience…is something that is unique to me, and would be beneficial to me at the Court and hopefully to the Court as a whole. together,” O’Bonsawin said on Wednesday.

After beginning with a few lines in the Abenaki language, she answered questions from members of the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights Committee, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, as well as a Member of Parliament from Green party on his career, his experiences, his goals. in the new role, and his views on the law.

Facilitated by the vice-dean of the French common law program at the University of Ottawa, Alain Roussy, parliamentarians were advised not to ask him to comment on issues that could come before the Supreme Court, citing the need maintain judicial impartiality.

O’Bonsawin spoke about his perspective on the intersection of mental health issues and the legal system, his extensive research on the Gladue Principles, and challenges around access to justice.

“My experience has helped me as a judge to look at all cases with an open and sensitive mind,” she said.

On August 19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced O’Bonsawin’s appointment, and the appointment was quickly celebrated as fulfilling an important role at the highest level of the nation’s justice system.

An Abenaki member of the Odanak First Nation, O’Bonsawin wrote in her application about her experience as a First Nations lawyer and said that as a child in a working-class home, it was her “dream to become a lawyer. She said on Wednesday, when she was selected to interview for the job, that she felt like that young girl again.

O’Bonsawin spoke about the help she received from mentors and also offered personal insight into her family and home life. She shared with the parliamentarians that her husband is an engineer and a lawyer, and they have two sons. At home she has three dogs, eight chickens, a gecko and longs to add a cat to the mix.

Wednesday’s hearing was part of a process the Liberals instituted in 2016 to increase transparency in the appointment process for Supreme Court vacancies.

The search that ultimately led to O’Bonsawin’s nomination began in early April when Trudeau launched the screening process to identify candidates, giving potential candidates until May 13 to apply.

It was then the job of an independent advisory board to review the nominations and submit a shortlist for consideration by the Prime Minister. The board said it received 12 applications and ultimately interviewed six candidates. Trudeau received the shortlist in late June, months before naming O’Bonsawin as his Supreme Court pick.

The process is implemented whenever a vacancy arises, usually driven by the mandatory retirement age of 75. In this case, O’Bonsawin’s appointment is to fill the vacancy created by the upcoming Sept. 1 retirement of Supreme Court Justice Michael Moldaver. after 11 years on the top court. A vote is not required to confirm his appointment.


Ahead of O’Bonsawin’s hearing, members of the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights Committee heard from the chair of the Independent Advisory Council and former premier of Prince Edward Island , Wade MacLauchlan, and Minister of Justice, David Lametti, discuss the selection process and his appointment.

During their appearance before the committee on Wednesday morning, MacLauchlan said the selection of O’Bonsawin – a bilingual, bilingual Ontario judge becoming the first Indigenous person chosen to serve on Canada’s highest court – is proof that the independent process works. , there could be improvements. He suggested changes to the process that could ensure more diverse candidates continue to put forward their names.

“If this was an ongoing conversation – as opposed to something we rushed into just in the face of an imminent departure from the Court and the need to recruit a new candidate – I think it could be something that could broaden the field of candidates,” MacLauchlan said, referring to comments from his predecessor in the role, former prime minister Kim Campbell. “I agree with these comments.”

He also said the process could benefit from more time for applicants to consider applying and then for the board to assess the applications received.

“The process involves considerable study, discernment and the consideration of many details in the space of about six weeks or less… The work was done with diligence, collaboration, judgment and this helped the process. that being said, I think an extra one or two weeks for the delay would be beneficial for future Supreme Court appointments,” he said.

Since it might be some time before the next appointment, MacLauchlan suggested this might be an opportunity to make these changes and start educating potential future jurists well in advance.

“Much of the dissemination of information is not so much to give notice, but to set in motion networks of encouragement. are not used to applying for a job. They may need an encouraging nudge from colleagues, they will need to talk about it at home to weigh family considerations, including what it means to relocate and move to Ottawa,” MacLauchlan said.

Lametti touted the process on Wednesday, saying O’Bonsawin’s appointment is an indication that it “is producing exceptional judicial appointments who bring to the Court not only unquestioned judicial excellence, but also a rich humanity and deep understanding. of Canada’s diversity”.

“I am confident that she will serve Canadians in an exceptional way, upholding the highest ideals of the Court and guiding the evolution of Canadian law,” Lametti told the committee.


O’Bonsawin has been a judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Ottawa since 2017, and earlier this year she successfully defended her doctoral thesis on the application of Gladue principles, which are ways for courts consider the experiences of Indigenous peoples when making sentencing decisions.

“It was a good thing that I was a really organized woman,” she told the committee.

The incoming judge was also described as having expertise in mental health, human rights and labor law, stemming from her experience working as general counsel for the Royal Ottawa, a mental health specialty hospital in Ottawa, with Royal Canadian Mounted Police legal services. Police and Canada Post lawyer.

When his appointment was announced, Indigenous leaders touted his nomination as an inspiration that will see the Supreme Court enriched by having a judge on its bench who can interpret Canadian laws through an Indigenous lens.

At Wednesday morning’s hearing, Nunavut NDP MP Lori Idlout said O’Bonsawin’s nomination “opens up the possibility of establishing and recognizing a pluralistic legal system” and called on the government federal government to ensure that this is not a one-off decision. no follow-up on reconciliation in the justice system.

Other MPs and senators expressed optimism that the decision marks another step, following last year’s appointment of Justice Mahmud Jamal, towards ensuring that the Supreme Court of Canada reflects the people of Canada.

“I wrote in my book after you finished your opening comments: ‘So normal and so exceptional.’ I think those are the characteristics that came out of your questions and answers, and thank you for that,” Senator Peter Harder said during the afternoon session.

Prior to O’Bonsawin’s remarks, Nova Scotia Liberal MP Jaime Battiste called it a “great day.”

“As a member of the Indigenous Bar Association for over 20 years as a student and then back as an Indigenous parliamentarian, I have often heard the plea and the dream that one day we will see a candidate indigenous to the Supreme Court of Canada,” he said.

Responding to Battiste, Lametti said he agreed with the importance for Indigenous peoples to see themselves “in what are frankly colonial institutions, and to see their participation as a means of improving those institutions, and to see this as a way to make Canadians better at law.”


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