'Extraordinary jurist': Sheilah Martin named new justice to the Supreme Court of Canada

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has nominated Alberta-based judge, author and academic Sheilah Martin to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Appointment will fill vacancy to be left by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who is set to retire Dec. 15

Justice Sheilah Martin is shown in a handout photo supplied by the Alberta Courts. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed Alberta-based judge Martin to the Supreme Court of Canada. (Alberta Courts/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has nominated Alberta-based judge, author and academic Sheilah Martin to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Martin was first appointed as a judge in 2005, and served on the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta in Calgary until June 2016, when she was appointed as a judge of the Courts of Appeal of Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

She has also served as a deputy judge for the Supreme Court of Yukon since 2009.

Her 30-year legal career has focused on Indigenous issues, education, equality rights and increasing the number of historically underrepresented groups in law schools and the legal profession.

A news release from the Prime Minister's Office also touted her awards, including the Distinguished Service Award for Legal Scholarship, the Law Society of Alberta's Certificate of Merit and the YWCA's Advancement of Women Award.

Trudeau praised Martin's accomplishments as an asset to the top court.

"She has a breadth of experience, is an extraordinary jurist and has experience right across the country, including in the North," he said. "She's going to be a great voice on the Supreme Court."

Trudeau on new Supreme Court nominee

6 years ago
Duration 0:20
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters on the way into his weekly caucus meeting

The appointment retains the gender makeup of the nine-member high court, which now has four women and five men.

Many had expressed hope that an Indigenous person would be nominated. When asked why that didn't happen, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould called it an "important question," but referred only to the "open, transparent" appointment process with clear criteria on merit, functional bilingualism and diversity.

Indigenous judges

She said Indigenous lawyers are taking up an increasing number of seats on lower court benches across the country.

"Ultimately we will wind up with an Indigenous justice on the Supreme Court," she said.

Born and raised in Montreal, Martin studied common and civil law at McGill University. She devoted much of her life to teaching, and worked as a professor and dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Calgary.

In a questionnaire for the appointment process that is posted online, Martin cites her role in education as one of her best attributes for the Supreme Court job. She said she knew from her early studies that she wanted to share her "joy of learning" and wrote books to help people understand their legal rights and responsibilities.

Contributions to education

"While my commitment to fairness and equal justice for all spans and unites my entire career, my most significant contribution has been to education, richly defined," she wrote. "My guiding desire has been to use what I have learned to help others gain a greater understanding of the law: its purpose, role and promise."

"I have dedicated much of my life to various forms and types of education: often on equality and diversity, but also spanning many diverse subject areas. Throughout, I sought to create a conversational climate where differences of opinion can be explored fully, openly and with respect. Whatever the topic, and whatever the role I played, clarity, communication and insight have been persistent preoccupations."

Sheilah Martin 'an absolutely eminently qualified jurist'

6 years ago
Duration 7:26
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould weighs in on why Sheilah Martin was named as the new justice to the Supreme Court of Canada.

She said her early upbringing in Montreal helped shape her commitment to issues of diversity and equality.

"I came from a loving family of modest means and saw the daily stress of trying to make ends meet," she wrote.

Significant cases

Asked to outline past cases she considers the most significant in her career, Martin cited:

  • Work on the Indian Residential School Settlement, calling it "among the most meaningful and challenging work" of her career.
  • Work on compensation for wrongfully convicted persons, including the precedent-setting redress case of David Milgaard, who was wrongfully convicted of raping and killing Saskatchewan nurse Gail Miller.
  • Work on cases involving physician-assisted death, which she said deepened her knowledge of life, law, and what it means to be a trial judge.
  • Presiding over the criminal trial of Dustin Paxton, who was convicted in February, 2012, of aggravated and sexual assault for the prolonged and brutal abuse of a man who was his friend and roommate.

Asked about the appropriate role of a judge in a constitutional democracy, Martin responded that it is "complex and evolving," but is fundamentally as a defender of constitutional rights.

"Governments as well as private actors are accountable under the law, which should be clear, stable and applied evenly. It falls to the judiciary to ensure that no one is above the law," she wrote.

The Supreme Court of Canada is a nine-justice panel composed of four women and five men. (Chris Wattie/Canadian Press)

Martin's appointment fills a vacancy on the bench from the pending departure of Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who retires Dec. 15.

Chief justice to be named mid-December

Trudeau has not yet named a new chief justice, but his office said that appointment will be made in mid-December.

Next Monday, members of the House of Commons justice committee will hold a special hearing, where Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould will explain the selection process and provide reasons Martin was nominated.

Another meeting Tuesday that will be moderated by a law professor will give MPs and senators on the respective House and Senate justice committees an opportunity to ask Martin questions.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde expressed disappointment the appointee was not Indigenous, but said he looked forward to more appointments of First Nations lawyers to judicial positions, and to the promotion of those already on the bench to more senior levels.

"As national chief I will continue to advocate for more First Nations people at all tables where decisions are made that affect our people and our rights," he said.

Wilson-Raybould on appointing indigenous judges

6 years ago
Duration 2:06
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould spoke to reporters after the weekly caucus meeting

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party supports the bilingualism requirement in principle, but said there should be "special consideration" when it comes to Indigenous candidates.

"I think there needs to be an understanding of the unique situation that Indigenous communities have faced historically and a recognition of the language of Indigenous communities," he said.

'Judicial temperament'

Conservative deputy justice critic Michael Cooper welcomed the "well-qualified" appointment, saying Martin brings both practical and academic perspectives to the bench.

"She has the judicial temperament. She is someone who brings experience. She is someone who is well-respected," he said.

NDP justice critic Murray Rankin welcomed the appointment of Martin, calling her an "extraordinary jurist." But he expressed disappointment an Indigenous candidate was not picked.

"I think all Canadians are disappointed. Certainly the NDP is disappointed that there wasn't an Indigenous person who was appointed," he said.

With files from Nick Gamache