A Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge has written a letter of apology to a trans woman for twice calling her "sir" as she was arguing her discrimination case.

Justice Timothy Gabriel made the remark while presiding over a hearing last Wednesday involving Jessica Dempsey and her battle against the Department of Community Services. 

The Halifax woman does not have a lawyer and is representing herself as she tries to have her income assistance appeal heard judicially rather than through the department's appeal board.

Judges learn about respectful terminology

The judge's apology comes after two groups — the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society and the Canadian Bar Association's Nova Scotia branch — recently produced guides for lawyers on how to respectfully interact with trans individuals.

The bar association's equity committee consulted with the province's chief justices during the development of its document, and the justices agreed it would be a useful resource to help judges, according to a Nova Scotia judiciary spokesperson. The bar association document was shared with all Nova Scotia judges as an educational resource in January.

'If I could interject, sir'

The judge started the hearing by referring to Dempsey as "Ms."

Dempsey followed by saying she is an Indigenous trans woman who prefers the pronouns she and her. She argued further dealings with the Community Services Department would cause her harm because she said it is "refusing to acknowledge trans people."

Justice Timothy Gabriel letter

A portion of Justice Timothy Gabriel's letter to Jessica Dempsey. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

After listening to her for nearly two minutes, Gabriel interrupted: "If I could just interject, sir, I need to hear from you in specifics of your application," he said, asking how charter issues tie into this case.

"This isn't a platform to talk about other things," Gabriel said.

Apology accepted

After a minute of courtroom silence, Gabriel said, "Excuse me, sir, do you have a response to the question?"

"Your Honour, I'm not a sir," said Dempsey.

The judge apologized immediately, called Dempsey "ma'am" and granted her a recess as she left the courthouse in tears.

Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Timothy Gabriel

Timothy Gabriel was appointed to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court last year. (Nova Scotia Judiciary)

He followed up with a letter apologizing for his "error." Gabriel's letter said he did not realize that he had called her sir twice, and did not intend any disrespect.

Dempsey said she's "appalled" by the incident, and suggested the judge wasn't listening when she explained her preferred pronouns. However, she accepted Gabriel's apology, saying, "it's difficult and I totally understand that."

'Perfection is likely impossible'

Darrel Pink, executive director of the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society, commended the judge for apologizing and setting the example that as a leader, "if you don't get it right, you can get it right the next time."

He said many lawyers and judges want to learn how to deal with all people appropriately, but added "perfection is likely impossible here."

'It's misgendering'

Dempsey doesn't regard it as an error — she called it "misgendering," which she says is "really hurtful because I've done a lot of work to become who I am," she said.

Dempsey said she "took pride and time" to educate herself on proper etiquette in referring to a judge. She feels she was due the same courtesy, particularly in the Supreme Court, which she said should be a safe space for trans individuals.