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Reconciliation, fairness top of mind for new Supreme Court nominee Sheilah Martin

Supreme Court of Canada nominee Justice Sheilah Martin is greeted by members of Parliament and the Senate in Ottawa on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017.

Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

The Liberal government's Supreme Court nominee says her experience as a lawyer working on the residential-school settlement taught her about the importance of reconciliation and the responsibility of those in power to learn about the lives of others.

Justice Sheilah Martin also referenced the humility she found in working on behalf of David Milgaard, who was wrongfully convicted of murder, as well as the nuances of judicial sexual-assault training during a question-and-answer session with Parliamentarians on Tuesday.

Known as an advocate for equality and women's issues, Justice Martin, 60, was cautious when asked about former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose's bill to mandate sexual-assault training for judges, which is now being delayed by the Senate.

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Speaking generally, Justice Martin said that as a former law professor, she's rarely heard a good argument in favour of less education. But that need has to be balanced with judicial independence.

"When you're dealing with the education of judges – or I guess in this case potential judges – one always has to be exceptionally mindful of the countervailing requirement of judicial independence, and who leads the education, what its content is," she said, noting many provincial and national organizations work in this area.

The session was moderated by University of Ottawa law professor François Larocque, who billed it as a chance to get to know Justice Martin and not an opportunity to comment on specific legal cases. Justice Martin will fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin on Dec. 15. Her nomination will keep the court at five men and four women.

Justice Martin, who frequently made the crowd laugh with quips about everything from her career to her hair, was quizzed for more than two hours by MPs and Senators from all parties, including the Bloc and Green Party's Elizabeth May, who seemed impressed with her qualifications. The room was also filled with young law students, who lined up in the rain to get a seat to watch.

Justice Martin said her approach to writing legal decisions is to respond fairly to arguments that parties have made.

"I do consider the other side," she said.

Many in the legal and Indigenous communities expressed disappointment last week that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn't choose an Indigenous judge to sit on the country's top court. But Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told reporters that Justice Martin, who, since June, 2016, served as a judge of the Courts of Appeal of Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, will serve the country well.

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"She brings diversity from living in various places across our great nation, working in the North, working directly with Indigenous peoples throughout her career," said Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who called it an "incredible appointment."

Justice Martin said her experience working alongside former Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine on the Indian residential school settlement and hearing the stories of abuse left her moved and shaken.

"This experience reinforced in me how everyone has a pressing, ongoing and personal responsibility to learn about the lives of others and how that is a special obligation for those who sit in positions of trust, power and authority," she said.

Justice Martin also referenced the Supreme Court's Ipeelee decision of March, 2012, which said that sentencing judges must take into account the historical experience of Indigenous offenders.

In addition to her work on the bench, Justice Martin spoke about her upbringing in an English family in Montreal. "It gives me a very full sensibility about minority language rights," she said. Justice Martin spoke frequently in French throughout the session.

She also said that while her French is "not perfect," she understands all the nuances. Living in Alberta, she said she watched TV, listened to radio and read in French.

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Justice Martin was also part of a team of lawyers who sought compensation for Mr. Milgaard, who was wrongfully convicted in 1970 of the rape and murder of Saskatchewan nursing aide Gail Miller a year earlier.

"Investigation and judging requires constant vigilance, an open mind, caution, care and profound humility," she said. "Through David, I also learned about moral courage, resilience and the power of the human heart to forgive."

Her late husband, lawyer Hersh Wolch, was also known for his tireless advocacy on behalf of wrongfully convicted Canadians, including Mr. Milgaard. Mr. Wolch died of a heart attack in July at the age of 77. The two had seven children, combined, from previous relationships.

Her large family, she said, is "proof I can multitask, resolve conflict and have zero chance of a swollen head."

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