As It Happens·Q&A

Michelle O'Bonsawin's nomination brings missing perspective to Supreme Court, says former colleague

Michelle O’Bonsawin’s experience, passion for her community, and professionalism will help her succeed as the first Indigenous member of the Supreme Court, says Claudette Commanda.

The judge is the first Indigenous person nominated for Canada's highest court

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Ontario judge Michelle O'Bonsawin to the Supreme Court of Canada on Aug. 19, 2022, making her the first Indigenous person poised to sit on the country's highest bench. O'Bonsawin is shown in this undated handout photo. (PMO/The Canadian Press)

Story Transcript

Michelle O'Bonsawin's experience, passion for her community and professionalism will help her succeed as the first Indigenous member of the Supreme Court of Canada, says Claudette Commanda. 

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced O'Bonsawin's nomination to the country's highest court. She is Abenaki from Odanak. 

The bilingual judge has served on the Ontario Superior Court of Justice since 2017, and also holds a PhD in law from the University of Ottawa.

Commanda, special advisor on reconciliation to the dean of the University of Ottawa law faculty, says this day has been a long time coming for Indigenous people, and that Canada has lost out on important wisdom by not making such a nomination until now. 

Similar to O'Bonsawin, Commanda has a first on the horizon. She's set to become the University of Ottawa's first Indigenous chancellor later this year.

Commanda spoke with the As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner about the nomination of her colleague. Here's part of that conversation. 

Take us back to this morning when you learned of this announcement from the prime minister. What was that moment like? 

That moment was so refreshing. It was a pleasant surprise. I was at my desk doing my work. I listened to the news and the announcement comes on that Prime Minister Trudeau appointed Michelle O'Bonsawin to the Supreme Court of Canada, and I can tell you that my heart just soared. 

I was so very happy and very proud for Michelle. Very happy, very enthused, and it actually it made my day. Absolutely it did. 

A woman speaks at a microphone.
Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg's Claudette Commanda speaks at a community celebration of National Indigenous Peoples Day at Mādahòkì Farm west of downtown Ottawa June 21, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Is there a part of you wondering why it took so long? 

Yes, of course.... When we're looking at the Indigenous world, for quite a time now, First Nations or Indigenous peoples were advocating that one of our own be appointed to the Supreme Court. And unfortunately, in the past it didn't happen.

So it has taken long. However, I can't help but feeling that it just goes to show that as First Nations people, we are very patient, but also very hopeful and optimistic, and we don't give up. It's that resilience and that strength. 

So what's taken so long? I think what's taken so long is the fact that there was a lack of recognition of First Nations people and their contributions, a lack of recognition and respect that we are accomplished people, we are successful, we are educated, we have skills and we offer so much wealth to Canada. 

And now here we are that finally, finally it's recognized, it's validated, and it clearly shows that this appointment of the first Indigenous lawyer and an Indigenous woman to the highest court bench speaks volumes. 

How do you know Michelle O'Bonsawin? 

I met Michelle when she was a law student at the University of Ottawa, and she had reached out to me at that time to talk to me about cultural protocols and my knowledge and advice on Indigenous issues or Indigenous legal traditions. 

We've never been given an opportunity in any of the courts to [value] our legal traditions and to work with them.- Claudette Commanda

Beyond her impressive resumé, what do you think makes her a good candidate for the Supreme Court? 

She's a First Nation woman. She has lived experiences. She has those teachings from her people. She's very community oriented and she's [a] very humble, very smart, accomplished woman. Those are just tremendous assets to have, attributes that certainly qualify her for this high position. 

She's done well as a student, as a lawyer, as a judge, because of her personal attributes, combining that with her legal education, her skills and experience, and the passion that she has for community. The work that she's done in mental health, the work that she's done learning about the Gladue principles and how to apply those principles in a court decision. 

And just opening doors to welcome in various peoples of different expertise to come together and to create and implement those programs that are so much needed, as we look in the area of mental health, and especially with relating to Indigenous peoples in the area of human rights, in the area of labour law is so important. 

What are Gladue reports?

10 months ago
Duration 2:52
Gladue reports explain an Indigenous person’s history, their family's history and their community's history to the courts, in order to take the individual’s unique circumstances and challenges into consideration.

What do you think has been lost by not having an Indigenous person on the Supreme Court for this long? 

A wealth of knowledge, a wealth of wisdom, a wealth of lived experiences and the understandings of our worldview or perspectives, our own Indigenous legal traditions. 

And we've always had our laws, we've always had our legal orders in place through our governance structure that's embedded in our foundation of our language and culture, our teachings, and those roles and responsibilities. And we've applied those in our communities, in our nation, but we've never been given an opportunity in any of the courts to [value] our legal traditions and to work with them, so that has been lost. 

It's so important that we use those in any title, in any capacity and any role and responsibility that we have. 

So the next time that you run into Michelle O'Bonsawin, she could be the first Indigenous person on the Supreme Court. You could be University of Ottawa's first Indigenous chancellor. What would that moment be like when you see each other? 

Wow. I'm just getting this nice, warm feeling right now with these goosebumps. I know we're just going to be so happy to see one another, and we're going to hug one another. We're going to congratulate one another.... We will uplift one another. 

There is a saying in our people's way, and I've always remembered this and I've always held this — [something] that my grandfather, the late William Commanda, had told me. The first time I heard this was when I was about six years old. 

He always reminded us that when one falls, we all fall. When one cries, we all cry. When one succeeds, we all succeed. We must hold one another, uplift one another, be happy for one another and be proud and support one another. 

And when I see her in person, that is what I will tell her: Michelle, thank you for the good work that you have done for all the people. Thank you for the good work that you have done for Indigenous peoples. Michelle, thank you. I wish you well and I stand with you as my sister. 

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Katie Geleff. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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