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Canada Abella inducted into American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella tomorrow adds a new citation to her extraordinary list of honours - induction into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

One of 203 fellows and 24 foreign honorary members elected to the academy this year, Madam Justice Abella joins a stellar list of inductees that includes former vice-president Al Gore.; former U.S. Supreme Court associate justice Sandra Day O'Connor; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and filmmaker Spike Lee. The foreign members elected include one other Canadian - University of British Columbia mathematician Donald Ludwig, an emeritus professor - as well as Irish novelist John Banville and architect Rem Koolhaas.

The induction ceremonies are scheduled to be held on the campus of Harvard University, near the academy's headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. The AAAS, founded in 1780, bills itself as the world's oldest think tank, examining far-ranging issues of public policy.

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Judge Abella, appointed to the Supreme Court in August of 2004 by former prime minister Paul Martin, declined to comment on her induction. But she plans to attend the ceremony, along with her husband, York University historian Irving Abella.

Her attraction to the law was ordained early on. The daughter of Holocaust survivors Jacob and Fanny (Krongold) Silberman, she was born in a displaced persons camp near Stuttgart, Germany, in 1946. The Second World War had abruptly ended her father's nascent career as a lawyer.

Interned in Nazi labour and concentration camps, the couple lost a two-year-old son, Julius, at Treblinka, as well as their parents and siblings. When the family emigrated to Canada in 1950, Judge Abella's father worked as an insurance agent, while Fanny sold real estate.

As a child, Judge Abella was a prize-winning pianist (she and her younger sister Toni once played at Massey Hall) and an avid reader.

In one interview, she recalled weekly trips to the library and the power of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, which she read at the age of 9. "It's all about a man and the most extraordinary injustice - the price he has to pay for stealing a loaf of bread. I can't tell you why, but the book shook me to the core," she said.

"Reading Les Mis was the moment when being a lawyer wasn't something I wanted to do because my parents thought it was a good thing. It turned into something I wanted to do so that people would be protected from those kinds of injustices."

"She often told me that she was driven to become a lawyer, and do what her father had been prevented from doing," said Toronto lawyer and comedy writer Leonard Wise, who dated Judge Abella during their years at the University of Toronto in the 1960s. "We were in U.C. Follies together. Rosie was the pianist, and I wanted to be an actor," Mr. Wise recalled.

"But her parents were determined that she would find a life partner who was serious and substantial. I remember being invited to meet them, and her mother, who was very tough, looked at me and said to Rosie, in front of me, 'Rosie, is this the best you can do?' "

Judge Abella's father died a month before her law school graduation. "I always felt there was a man who encouraged me to believe there was nothing I couldn't do," she told one interviewer.

Later, she met and fell in love with a young history student, Irving Abella. They've been married 39 years and have two sons, Jacob and Zachary, both lawyers.

Judge Abella's election to the academy extends a curriculum vitae resonant with achievement: at 29 (in 1976), only four years out of the University of Toronto law school and seven months pregnant, she became the youngest female judge in Canadian history, appointed to the Ontario Family Court.

She's the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court, holds 24 honorary degrees, and is the de facto creator of the concept of employment equity through her 1984 royal commission on equality in employment.

Ralph Lancaster, former president of the American College of Trial Lawyers and a friend for 20 years, says "Rosie's an extraordinary human being and an extraordinary judge. I'm a Conservative Republican, so we don't always see eye to eye, but she's a great proponent of human rights and always does what she thinks is fair. And she has a wonderful sense of humour."

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In championing her candidacy for the Supreme Court three years ago, then-justice-minister Irwin Cotler told a parliamentary committee that Judge Abella was "an innovative and creative jurist who has had a transformative impact on various areas of the law, but one who proceeds with careful, reasoned, and principled analysis, and appropriate deference to precedent."

Then-Ontario-attorney-general Roy McMurtry first appointed her to the bench. "Women were then underrepresented in the law and I made enquiries and she impressed me very much," the recently retired chief justice of Ontario said this week.

"Rosie's a force of nature," said Harold Koh, dean of Yale law school, who sits on the committee that adjudicates elections to the AAAS. "Deeply jubilant, a brilliant jurist and totally dedicated to the promotion of human rights. She's both admired and beloved by everyone she meets."

After her stint on the family court, Judge Abella chaired the Ontario Labour Relations Board for five years, then the Ontario Law Reform Commission for three more.

During her 12 years (1992-2004) on the Ontario Court of Appeal, she was involved in the decision that same-sex partners are just as entitled to survivor benefits as married heterosexual couples and wrote the majority opinion in a judgment that allowed ex-wives in financial difficulty to reopen separation and divorce agreements.

In a recent commencement speech, she recalled that she found among her late father's papers a speech he had delivered in 1948 during a visit by Eleanor Roosevelt to her parents' displaced persons camp. "The best we are able to produce are these few children," her father had written. "They are both our fortune and our sole hope for the future ... I was one of those children."

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