A long-time Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge, Heather Robertson fought to make the courts more accessible – not just for herself, but for everyone in the province.
Three years after a skiing injury left her in need of a wheelchair for the rest of her life, Justice Robertson, who died on Feb. 11 at the age of 73, was appointed to the province’s highest trial court.
“With my presence, the court, will to a much greater degree, represent the diversity in our society,” she said during her swearing-in ceremony in 1998. “I find myself an unlikely emissary of this message. But for fate, I would never have been able to understand this in such a personal way.”
Days after her appointment, she toured the Halifax Law Courts, where she heard most of her cases, and came up with a list of necessary improvements: lifts to get her up the stairs to the judge’s dais, electrifying heavy courtroom doors and an accessible entrance from the judges’ parking area.
During her more than 20 years on the bench, Justice Robertson was deeply involved in the construction of new courthouses in the province and renovations of courtrooms and chambers, and fought to make them accessible for anyone with mobility issues.
“She was a problem solver,” said her long-time friend Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Gerald Moir. “She could engineer a way around a problem – whether it was her own physical challenges or something that occurred in a courtroom or a political issue.”
Active in the Nova Scotia Liberal Party, Justice Robertson was a top fundraiser for former premier John Savage during his 1992 Liberal leadership bid. Three years later, she was appointed Mr. Savage’s chief of staff. Her appointment came just months before the ski accident that left her with a severed spinal cord. After extensive rehabilitation after her accident, she was appointed chair of the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board.
“I’m not going to look back; I’m not going to regret that things ever happened. You just say stuff happens, so time to move on. I just knew I had to do that,” she told Southam Newspapers in a 1998 interview.
Mary Heather Robertson was born in Halifax on Oct. 20, 1947, the youngest of four children. Her father, Gerald, worked as a manager with the national postal service. As a child, she sailed at the Waegwoltic Club and developed a lifelong passion for the sport, later becoming a commodore of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron, president of the Nova Scotia Sailing Association and vice-president of the Canadian Yachting Association.
“You couldn’t meet her and not be impressed,” said Paul Tingley, a five-time Paralympian and two-time world champion sailor. “She was fearless.”
She graduated from Dalhousie University with an arts degree and an education degree from Saint Mary’s University. In 2013, Saint Mary’s gave her an honorary doctor of commerce. After working for a short time as a teacher and as a welfare officer for the city, she returned to Dalhousie to attend law school. She practised law at Walker Dunlop before stepping away from her practice to work in the fishery, buying and selling lobsters with A. M. (Sandy) Cameron, a former leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party. Justice Robertson returned to law and joined the firm Burchell, MacDougall and Gruchy.
“She had a very dry wit and a way about her that made you want to be around her,” said Supreme Court of Nova Scotia Chief Justice Deborah Smith. “She was really a straight shooter who called it like it is, and believe me, you weren’t left to wonder how she felt about a matter. As she let you know how she felt, it was often sprinkled with humorous comments that you really got a kick out of.”
On Sept. 24, 2004, applause broke out in Justice Robertson’s Halifax courtroom when she ruled that banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Her decision made the province the first in Atlantic Canada, and the sixth jurisdiction in the country to allow same-sex couples to marry.
“Justice Robertson always believed very strongly in equality for all,” Justice Smith said.
After handing down the decision, she told the lawyer involved, “Forward my congratulations to your clients.”
It was on a ski trip to Sugarloaf, Maine, in 1995 that Justice Robertson’s life changed dramatically in an instant. On her first run down the slopes one morning, she slid off the hill; her body wrapped around a tree. She had little memory of the accident, which left her with a punctured lung, broken ribs, fractured vertebrae, severed spinal cord and other internal injuries. She did remember having misgivings about ice on the trail that morning.
“I remember looking up at the blue, blue sky. It was a glorious day without a blemish, and I’m trying to breathe, and I realized I’m really in big trouble. I couldn’t feel anything from my waist down; it was quite instantaneous,” she said in an interview in 1998.
After emergency surgery, she returned home and spent several months at the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre in Halifax.
In 2007, she was back racing on the water in an adapted sailboat. With the encouragement of Mr. Tingley, she competed with him in the Mobility Cup, held in Nova Scotia.
“There was no holding her back,” Mr. Tingley said.
Before a race one day, the mast in their two-person Martin 16 fell and the sailboat almost capsized. What could have been a catastrophe turned into just another problem for the level-headed judge to solve. After immediately getting help to fix the mast, they arrived at the start line on time, raced well and finished the championships with a bronze.
In 2014, she helped bring about 100 sailors from around the world to Nova Scotia as chair of the International Federation of Disabled Sailors world championships. Wanting to leave a legacy from the competition, she pushed the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron to become more accessible with better access to its docks and clubhouse.
Not far from her waterfront home, where she lived with her brother and loved to entertain, she frequently raced in the Chester Harbour. Her 23-foot Bluenose-class sloop was modified with a special seat and wheel to make it possible for her to manoeuvre.
When she wasn’t working or sailing, she was often on the golf course. She used a specially designed golf cart with a seat that swung out and allowed her to swing her club. She also loved to drive to the law courts in a modified white 1975 two-door Buick LeSabre Custom Convertible, her hair blowing in the wind.
“Really nothing stopped her. She was just an amazing individual,” Justice Smith said.
For the past 12 years, Justice Robertson battled lung cancer. She continued working and kept her cancer treatments a secret from most of her colleagues. The challenges she faced in her life attuned her to some of the struggles people in her courtroom faced. She was known as a judge who had a deep sense of fairness, a skill at assessing credibility and a desire to treat everyone who appeared before her with respect.
Justice Robertson had no immediate plans to retire. Federally appointed judges can work until 75.
“She was a very strong individual,” Justice Smith said. “She was strong without being strident and that is quite an art.”
Justice Robertson, who died in her sleep at her home in East River, N.S., leaves her brothers, Kevin and James, and several nieces, nephews and grandnephews.