Nova Scotia

N.S. Supreme Court Justice Heather Robertson dies at 73

Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Heather Robertson has died. Outside the courtroom, Robertson played a role in many corporations, charitable projects and sports organizations.

Robertson was the first disabled judge appointed to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Heather Robertson died on Feb. 11 at the age of 73. (Nova Scotia Judiciary)

A longtime Supreme Court of Nova Scotia judge known for her fairness, her magnetic smile and her golf swing, has died.

Justice Heather Robertson died suddenly on Feb. 11 at the age of 73.

Robertson was described by her colleague, Chief Justice Deborah Smith, as having "an innate sense of fairness that led her to treat all who appeared before her with respect," according to a news release from the Nova Scotia Judiciary.

"Justice Robertson was an amazing individual who tackled every challenge with dignity and determination," Smith said in the news release. "She had a marvellous sense of humour and a frankness about her that I admired greatly."

Born in Halifax in 1947, Robertson obtained a bachelor of arts from Dalhousie University, followed by a bachelor of education from Saint Mary's University and a law degree from Dal. She was also given an honorary doctor of commerce degree by Saint Mary's in 2013.

But Robertson's legal career did not take a straightforward trajectory. After being called to the bar in 1975, she took a break to work in the fishery. In the 1980s, she was involved in political leadership campaigns, eventually becoming chief of staff to then-premier John Savage in 1995.

That same year, Robertson was injured in a skiing accident and became a paraplegic, requiring a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

Robertson was appointed a judge in 1998. (CBC)

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said he got to know Robertson well when she was working with his father as his chief of staff.

"I remember the first time I saw her when she had decided she would do this," Savage said. "I said, 'Are you really thinking straight?' And she said, 'It'll be the time of our lives, Michael. It's going to be the time of our lives.' Because that's the attitude she took into things."

Robertson came to terms in "a remarkable way" with the major change the injury brought to her life, with an attitude of "not what's happened, but what's next," Savage said.

He recalls playing golf one time with his young son and Robertson, who had a special golf cart that allowed her to stand up and swing the club.

"She didn't want any extra credit for the fact that she was playing in many ways a different game than we were, because at the end of the day, we were out having fun and it didn't slow her down any."

Savage said Robertson was a capable, decent and unfailingly positive person who had a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her lips.

Robertson became the first disabled Supreme Court judge in Nova Scotia when she was appointed to the court in 1998.

Supreme Court Justice Gerald Moir said Robertson had "an uncanny ability to see what people were thinking" and assess credibility and uncover the facts.

"She was always one for the little guy. I'm not saying she would bend the law, but any person would be treated with fairness," said Moir, who spoke with CBC News after being referred by the Nova Scotia Judiciary.

Robertson was presiding on Sept. 24, 2004, when applause broke out as she ruled that banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

In addition to her duties as a judge, Robertson served on the courthouse standards committee and was involved in overseeing the construction and renovation of new courthouses.

MLA Brendan Maguire, whose family was friends with Robertson, said she was an advocate for people with mobility and accessibility issues, and was instrumental in making courts accessible.

"She fought very hard, publicly and behind the scenes, to change the courts so that those courts were accessible to her and all Nova Scotians," he said. "Those changes would have came, but it was Heather that led the way."

In more recent years, Robertson faced a personal challenge that very few people knew about. Moir said she swore him to secrecy at the time, but he now feels comfortable sharing that Robertson was diagnosed with lung cancer just over 10 years ago, and didn't think she would live more than a couple of years.

She kept her appointments, tests and treatments mostly to herself and a few close friends and relatives.

"She kept it quiet so she could do her job," said Moir, who praised her "heroic fortitude."

Before her appointment as judge, Robertson also served as chair of the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board and served stints as director of Canada Post, Nova Scotia Resources Limited and Halterm Acquisition Corp., as well as vice-chair of the Bluenose Preservation Trust and member of Dalhousie University's board of governors and the fund council of Nova Scotia's Liberal Party.

Robertson was also a sports fan, and enjoyed sailing, swimming and kayaking.

Robertson served in sailing and yachting organizations both provincially and nationally, and competed as an athlete in the 2007 Mobility Cup. She also chaired the 2014 International Federation of Disabled Sailors World Championships, which was held in Nova Scotia that year.

A celebration of Robertson's life will take place when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

With a file from Carolyn Ray

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