Politics

Retiring Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella optimistic about Canada's march toward equality

Outgoing Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella says the country has made steady progress toward a more equitable society during her decades in law, though she says much more should be done to include the groups still being left behind.

Abella was the first Jewish woman and first refugee to sit on Canada's top court

Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella speaks to the CBC's Rosemary Barton in Ottawa. Abella will retire from the court on July 1, her 75th birthday. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

Outgoing Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella says the country has made steady progress toward a more equitable society during her decades in law, though she says much more should be done to include the groups still being left behind.

"We're in a lot better place now than we were," Abella said in an interview with CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton that aired Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live.

"But we have a long way to go."

Abella offered that assessment less than two weeks before she is due to retire from the court — on July 1, when she turns 75, the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices.

She was nominated to the Supreme Court by then-prime minister Paul Martin in 2004. She is the first Jewish woman and the first former refugee to serve on the high court bench.

Abella was born in a Displaced Person's Camp in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1946 before coming to Canada in 1950.

WATCH | Justice Rosalie Abella reflects on her career on Canada's top court:

Canada has made progress on equality, but 'long way to go,' says Abella

2 years ago
Duration 14:28
Justice Rosalie Abella, who is retiring from the Supreme Court of Canada, joined CBC's chief political correspondent, Rosemary Barton, to reflect on her lengthy judicial career and progress made toward a more equal society during that time.

Abella helped shape laws on disability, employment equity

In her interview with Barton, Abella reflected on a career that shaped numerous landmark changes to Canadian law, specifically for disadvantaged groups.

Before joining the Supreme Court, she led the Ontario Study on Access to Legal Services by the Disabled in 1983 and was the sole commissioner for the federal Royal Commission on Equality in Employment in 1984.

Her legal theories on equality and discrimination, developed as part of the royal commission, were adopted by the Supreme Court in 1989.

Abella, who was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1992, said those advancements reflected what she sees as a key principle of law — protecting people's rights while considering what she called "the context of the time."

"There's a difference between stability and stagnation," Abella said. "We cannot make decisions that are rooted in a hundred years of tradition."

Abella, age two, poses with her parents in Germany, where they lived before moving to Canada. (Submitted by Rosalie Abella)

She acknowledged that Canada has not always been quick to respond to the needs of marginalized groups. Abella said the country paid little attention to issues facing Indigenous communities in the 1970s, although the court has become more responsive since.

"[The court] should be aware of the world we live in and move with the times, when someone brings the case to us that feels like the right place to make change," she said.

"So we don't always do it. But we did with Indigenous rights," she said.

"We did what we did in every area of rights and I'm proud of that."

Abella is set to be replaced on the court by Justice Mahmud Jamal, who has served on the Ontario Court of Appeal since 2019. He was nominated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this week.

Jamal will also make history as the first person of colour to join the country's highest court.

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