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1982: Finally, a woman on Canada’s Supreme Court

The Story


When Bertha Wilson applied to law school, in 1954, she was told to go home and take up crocheting. And when she applied to a law firm after graduation, the partners debated whether women were suited to practise law. Nearly three decades later, Wilson has earned a place on the Supreme Court of Canada. The National looks on as rights groups cheer for the first woman on Canada's highest court.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: March 4, 1982
Guest(s): Jean Chrétien, Robert Kaplan, Flora MacDonald, Ian Morrison, Walter Tarnopolsky, Jean Wood
Host: Knowlton Nash
Reporter: David Halton, Marguerite MacDonald
Duration: 4:15

Did You know?


• Bertha Wilson was born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 1923. She went to university in Aberdeen, earning an MA in philosophy and then went to teachers college. Wilson immigrated to Canada in 1949 with her husband John Wilson, a Presbyterian minister. They settled in Halifax.

• Wilson went to Dalhousie Law School at age 31. After seven years as a "parish minister's wife," she said in 1990, "if anyone had asked me then what a tort was, I would have told them that it was a fancy cake that we served at church suppers."

• The dean asked Wilson why she didn't want to stay home where she had a husband to look after, she recalled in the same speech. "'Look, my dear,'" she quoted him as saying, "'we have no room for dilettantes at this law school. Why don't you just go home and take up crocheting?'" She excelled and graduated in 1958, joining the Toronto Bay Street firm Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt in 1959.

• Wilson was the first woman they'd hired as a lawyer, and the hiring came only after partners debated whether women were suited to practise law. In 1991, she recalled one of her first clients saying, "I don't want any bloody woman drafting my will." She eventually became the firm's first female partner and in 1975, was the first woman appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

• One of Wilson's Appeal Court rulings let an East Indian woman with a PhD in mathematics sue Toronto's Seneca College for racial discrimination when she couldn't get a job interview.
 
• Wilson was named to the Supreme Court by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau just 17 days before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted. Wilson was the first woman appointed to the court in its 107-year history. A year earlier, Sandra Day O'Connor had become the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

• While on the court, Wilson became known as a defender of the disadvantaged. In 1988, the court struck down Canada's abortion laws. In her abortion ruling Wilson said, "This decision is one that will have profound psychological, economic and social consequences for the pregnant woman." She added, "It is probably impossible for a man to respond, even imaginatively, to such a dilemma."

• The Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out rights for all Canadians and gave the Supreme Court the power to strike down any law that violates those rights. A 1990 study showed Wilson was the judge who was most willing to use the charter to strike down unfair or discriminatory laws.

• Wilson was extremely shy and only gave one interview while on the court. She rarely spoke publicly, but in 1990 she gave a speech to Toronto's Osgoode Hall law school in which she said certain aspects of Canadian criminal law were biased against women. The conservative group REAL Women of Canada complained to the Canadian Judicial Council, saying Wilson had a feminist bias. The complaint was thrown out.

• Wilson retired from the court in January 1991. At the public ceremony as she left the court, Wilson said, "Our charter is and must continue to be a vital force in moulding the lives of Canadians." She went on that year to head a Canadian Bar Association task force looking at ways to improve the status of women in the law profession.

Other Canadian women in the Supreme Court:
• Claire L'Heureux-Dubé (appointed 1987, retired 2002)
• Beverley McLachlin (appointed 1989, became Canada's Chief Justice 2000)
• Louise Arbour (appointed 1999, retired 2004)
• Marie Deschamps (appointed 2002, retired 2012)
• Rosalie Abella (appointed 2004)
• Louise Charron (appointed 2004, retired 2011)
• Andromache Karakatsanis (appointed 2011)
• Suzanne Côté (appointed 2014)

• As of November 2014, four of the nine Supreme Court justices are women. McLachlin is chief justice, the court's head.

• Britain was slower to appoint a woman to its House of Lords judicial committee. The first woman was appointed in 2003.


Also on March 4:
1989: Ed Broadbent, leader of the federal New Democratic Party, announces he will resign after 14 years and four elections.


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