The Current

Outgoing Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella on family and learning to be a judge

She’s the first Jewish woman and first former refugee to serve on Canada’s top court, the child of Holocaust survivors, and a legal trailblazer who helped break down barriers for disadvantaged groups. But Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella, 74, who leaves her role on the high court bench on July 1, she says her proudest accomplishment is her family.

'Nothing that I am' would have been possible without support of loved ones: Abella

Rosalie Abella smiles after being sworn in as a Supreme Court Judge during a ceremony at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on Oct. 4, 2004. Abella is set to retire from the bench on July 1. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

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She's the first Jewish woman and first former refugee to serve on Canada's top court, the child of Holocaust survivors, and a legal trailblazer who helped break down barriers for disadvantaged groups.

But as retiring Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella, 74, leaves her role on the high court bench on July 1, she says her proudest accomplishment is her family.

"I didn't know any other mothers who were lawyers, so it was a risk," Abella said. 

"I knew I would always work really, really, really hard and do what I could to make sure that, as a professional, I would be really good. But you don't know how it's going to turn out when you have children."

Abella spoke with The Current's Matt Galloway about her career, family life, and the state of equality in Canada. Here is part of their conversation.

You were the youngest person to become a judge in Canada at the age of 29 [in 1976]. What do you remember about finding out that you were going to be a judge?

I was shocked…. I got a phone call from the chief judge of the family court asking me if I wanted it. I remember that I was with a client when the phone rang. She stepped out of the room and this person said, "How would you like to be a judge on the family court?" And I said, "That sounds wonderful!" Not even a moment's reflection until I phoned home, told my husband, and he said, "Are you sure you want to do this? You've been practising law for four years. You're doing really well as a lawyer." And I said, "It sounds wonderful. Why wouldn't I want to do something that's so different from anything I ever dreamed would be possible?"

So, [then Ontario attorney general] Roy McMurtry appointed me. I was seven months pregnant with our second son, and I haven't regretted for one second the decision to join the family court and then the rest of the judiciary.

How do you think the experience in the family court in particular shaped the career that followed?

I think the family court taught me how to be a judge.

In law school, you learn the rules, you learn what the law is, but you don't see it in real life until you have clients. And then, in the family court, I saw the full weight of the law's capacity either to make life harder or easier for people. 

So it taught me to listen, and to learn not to impose my life and my views on the people who were before me, and try to figure out how the law fit with their lives in a way that at least didn't make it worse. 

WATCH | CBC's Rosemary Barton speaks with Rosalie Abella ahead of her retirement

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

1 year 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.

In [your] farewell speech, you also defined yourself, among other things, as an immigrant and as a refugee…. How has that identity shaped your career?

What it did for me, I realized in retrospect, was make me less fearful of consequences, less timid about adjusting the status quo, which seemed to work for a whole lot of people, but hadn't worked for many others, like my family. So it made me approach law, I think, with a greater sensitivity of how difficult the justice world could be, and how I think each of us had a responsibility — those of us in positions of good fortune — to make it easier for people who were less fortunate.

In 1984, with the Royal Commission [on Equality in Employment] report … you essentially defined workplace equality in this country. You coined the phrase employment equity…. How much closer to that are we now?

Trying to figure out what equality was was the biggest challenge…. But at the end of it, I said the goal is not to aspire to absolute equality; we can never get there. It's to reduce inequality over time. 

I've seen a lot of change since then. I've seen a lot of change since [my family and I] came to Canada in 1950 — a lot of really positive change, especially starting in the '70s. But I think there is still much to be done.

Persons with disabilities, Indigenous people, non-whites still experience barriers that are less overt, maybe, than they once were. And even for women. You know, we don't have child care yet, which is the ramp for working women who don't have the luxury of a job that pays you enough to be able to create these supports.

Abella is seen in a file photo. She was the youngest person in Canada to become a judge when she was appointed at the age of 29, and says she has never regretted the decision. (Philippe Landreville, Supreme Court of Canada Collection)

We tell ourselves the story of Canada — that we are tolerant, we're more than tolerant, we're diverse, that we're inclusive, that we are welcoming. If we still have a lot of work to do to meet the goals that were articulated in that report all those decades ago, is the story that we tell ourselves a true story?

Of course! It's a wonderful story. Look where we were. I mean, I'm married to Irving Abella, who co-wrote a book called None Is Too Many, which told the story of how Jewish refugees were not allowed into Canada. And then … three years ago, you had the prime minister and the leaders of every party standing up and apologizing for the St. Louis episode

Look how many … Jewish people are now integrated into society — which is not to say we aren't still dealing with a massive amount of antisemitism — but look how much better it is for all of those groups now than it was during the Second World War in Canada. We interned Japanese Canadians. I mean, [these were] shameful episodes in our history that would be, I think, inconceivable now.

I mark the country's greatness by the fact that it has never stopped worrying about these things, and incrementally doing something about each of them.

When you were giving your farewell speech, you became really emotional in talking about your husband. You said that he had been unconditionally encouraging. Tell me a little bit more about that. 

Being a child of Holocaust survivors has, above all, made me take nothing for granted. Nothing. I mean, their lives abruptly ended. Their families were killed. Their businesses were taken away. So I understood growing up, without anyone telling me, that things can end suddenly and you are to presume nothing. So I didn't presume that being married and being a lawyer and being a mother was going to be an easy thing to do. I just did it. And here I am on the other end.

It does make me emotional, because I know that I was able to experience a life that I did not presume, did not take for granted. 

It's everything to me. Nothing that I am now, nothing, would have been possible without the love and support of my parents, my husband and my children. I am so conscious of all of that, and it gives me strength.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Alison Masemann.

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