The nomination of Ontario judge Michelle O’Bonsawin as the first Indigenous person to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada is being heralded as a “monumental step forward” for the country in promoting diversity and reconciliation.
Justice O’Bonsawin, a bilingual Franco-Ontarian and Abenaki member of the Odanak First Nation, has served on the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Ottawa since 2017, and was the first Indigenous woman to hold that position, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in his nomination announcement on Friday.
The application process for the Supreme Court position was launched in April after one of the nine seats on the court was made vacant by the coming Sept. 1 retirement of Justice Michael Moldaver.
As part of the selection procedure, Justice O’Bonsawin will now participate in a question and answer session with members of the House of Commons committee on justice and human rights, including Justice Minister David Lametti.
Responding to the nomination on social media, Mr. Lametti called it a “historic moment” for the Supreme Court.
During the application process, which was only available to judges in Ontario to fill the vacant seat for that province, Justice O’Bonsawin spoke about the discrimination she faced as an Indigenous girl growing up off reserve.
Indigenous Bar Association calls for permanent spot on Supreme Court of Canada
She said this first-hand experience and work in Indigenous law has given her insight into the diversity and unique perspectives of Canadians that are important to take into account when making legal decisions.
“My experience is a clear example of the rich diversity that makes our country so special to me and my family,” she said in a questionnaire response as part of the application process. “My experiences have taught me that discrimination still occurs in Canada, but by being aware of these experiences and through my work in mental health, I believe that I can contribute to making our country a more inclusive society that is fair and just for all.”
There have been calls from legal advocates to make the top court more diverse and reflective of Canada’s population, with more representation from women and BIPOC individuals. This nomination from Mr. Trudeau, his fifth since he took office in 2015, would also restore the 5:4 male-to-female gender ratio left under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. Last year, Justice Mahmud Jamal became the first person of colour to sit on the court.
Nominating Justice O’Bonsawin is a move that Indigenous Bar Association (IBA) president Drew Lafond said will ensure diverse perspectives are represented in Canadian legal decision-making. The IBA endorsed Justice O’Bonsawin during the application process and also had representation on the independent advisory board that brought her name forward to Mr. Trudeau for consideration.
“I do think this is a monumental step forward for Indigenous people and something that we should all be proud of across Canada,” Mr. Lafond said in an interview. “I think this is a move in the right direction for the Supreme Court of Canada and hopefully a move toward the advancement of Indigenous interests and reconciliation.
“What we haven’t had in the history of the Supreme Court of Canada is a voice to speak to and deliberate about and navigate complex issues regarding Indigenous laws, traditions and customs.”
Mr. Lafond said he’s hoping the federal government builds off the nomination and does more to advance Indigenous interests in the court system, including mandating that at least one position on the Supreme Court will be reserved for someone with experience in Indigenous laws and traditions.
Prior to becoming a judge, Justice O’Bonsawin began her legal career with the RCMP and taught Indigenous law at the University of Ottawa. She also was general counsel for the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group and appeared before various tribunals and levels of court including the Consent and Capacity Board and the Ontario Review Board.
Robert Janes, who practices Aboriginal law as a managing partner at JFK Law, said having an Indigenous voice will add to the legitimacy of court decisions and allow Indigenous people affected by them to feel more included.
Mr. Janes said the broad range of work experience that Justice O’Bonsawin brings to the table beyond her Indigenous background will help with difficult cases the court will be facing over the next several years. He pointed to her legal background in health care as an asset for what he expects will be a series of cases related to the health care system and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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