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Justice Rosalie Abella on the front steps of the Supreme Court in Ottawa, where she presided for 17 years.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, a professor at Carleton University, and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

Today, as Rosalie Silberman Abella leaves the Supreme Court of Canada, we salute her long arc of ambition that bends toward justice. Today, as she turns 75, we honour her service to the rule of law, equality and rights. And today, Canada Day, we understand her life’s trinity – court, career, country – as a jurist, a woman, a refugee, a Jew, and, always, a Canadian.

Given how it began, who could have imagined her feverish journey? Who could have arranged her birth on July 1, 1946, amid the ashes of the Holocaust, which claimed her two-year-old brother? Who would have dared?

She was born in a displaced-persons camp in Germany to survivors of Theresienstadt and Buchenwald. Rosie came to Canada, landing at Pier 21 in Halifax, in 1950. When her father could not practise law because he was not a citizen, she vowed at four years old to become a lawyer. Named to the Ontario Family Court in 1976, she was the first Jewish woman and the youngest, too. As a lone royal commissioner, she created the concept of “employment equity” – influential at home and abroad. She was named to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1992 and the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004.

Scripted? Poetic? That’s for the Broadway musicals she adores. There was nothing predictable about her life in Canada. As she’ll tell you, she is driven by family, memory, good fortune and gratitude. “No one with this history does not feel lucky to be alive and free,” she once said. “No one with this history takes anything for granted … and does not feel that we have a particular duty to wear our identities with pride.”

Her desire emerged early. If you’re going to play the piano well, practise two hours a day. It makes you a prodigy. If you’re going to be a lawyer, borrow three books every week from the library.

There isn’t anything you can’t do, her father said. At University of Toronto law school, she was one of just five women. Offered a family judgeship when pregnant, she accepted; remember, she’s a refugee. Like other towering Canadian women – Beverley McLachlin, Adrienne Clarkson, Margaret Atwood, Hayley Wickenheiser – she knew what she wanted.

Piano, law, love, family. When she fell for Irving (Itchie) Abella, a brilliant labour historian, so what that he was six years older and not interested? She squatted near him in the university library and kept asking him out. Followed him to Europe. In 1968, married him. They had two sons, both lawyers, of course.

When opportunity knocked, she answered the door: the Ontario Human Rights Commission; the Ontario Labour Relations Board (first woman chair); a ground-breaking study on access to legal services for people with disabilities. Moderator of election debates, judge of the Giller Prize, chair of the Ontario Law Reform Commission, co-chair of the 1992 Constitutional conference.

When the President of Germany recently gave her a high honour, she reflected: “I feel my life has come full circle.” Germany’s ambassador to Canada, Sabine Sparwasser, said movingly: “Germany, in which she was born and that has inflicted so much suffering and sorrow on her family ... bows to her, to her wisdom, warmth, to the values she embodies.”

Governments and institutions bow to her, too, but she is self-deprecating. She is also funny, eclectic and sleepless, forever in motion, which does not mean jogging or gymnastics. E-mail her at 3:24 a.m. and she replies at 3:27 a.m. She’s writing a speech, a dissent, a review.

Citizen Abella is a comet of curiosity. Holidays mean the cottage, a tray of party sandwiches and a dozen novels and biographies. Like a gift of challah and chopped liver, she and Itchie devour a season’s television series in one sitting.

“Rosie sees the good in everyone,” Itchie says. Yet her sweetness is not saccharine. She has views on democracy, authoritarianism, corruption, politics and the judiciary. She’s a judge of character, too. Of a weak candidate for a big job, she deadpans: “My cat is more qualified.”

If a friend can offer his own judgment, without leave to appeal, here is mine: I know no one – no one – who loves as freely and deeply as Rosie. It comes without condition or statute of limitations. It extends to people, ideas and to Canada, too.

On this 154th birthday, our unfinished country is riven with angst and self-doubt. Oh, there is much wrong with Canada. There is much right, too – and no more so than the lyrical life of Rosie Abella, its adopted daughter.

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