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How Justice Rosalie Abella made Yale law grads cry on the happiest day of their lives

Rosalie Abella, the first Jewish woman to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada bench, spoke to Yale University graduate in 2016 about their duty to stand up for the vulnerable in "a world that too often feels like it's spinning out of control."

In 2004, Abella became the first Jewish woman to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada bench

Yale Law School awarded Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella an honorary degree in 2016, making her the fourth Canadian to receive one. (Philippe Landreville, Supreme Court of Canada Collection)
Listen8:54

Originally published on May 29, 2016.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, Vincent Massey, Lester B. Pearson and now, Rosalie Abella.

In 2016, Supreme Court Justice Abella became the fourth Canadian, and the first Canadian woman, to be awarded an honorary degree from Yale Law School.

"In these frenetically fluid, intellectually sclerotic, economically narcissistic, ideologically polarized, and rhetorically tempestuous times — a world that too often feels like it's spinning out of control — we need a legal profession that worries about what the world looks and feels like to those who are vulnerable," Abella told Yale University graduates.

Abella was born in 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany. She immigrated to Halifax with her family six years later.

Her father attended law school in Poland in the 1930s. At the time, there was a quota for the number of Jewish students admitted to the school, and they were assigned special seats. Rather than sit in them, Abella said her father chose to stand for most of his first year.

The moment I heard the story about his being denied the ability to be a lawyer was the moment I decided to become one.​​​​​- Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella

Abella's father was on his way to becoming a judge in 1939, but the Second World War broke out the day he was scheduled to write his judgeship exam. He never became a judge and was never able to practice law in Poland. He applied to become a member of the bar after immigrating to Canada, but was denied because he was not a Canadian citizen. 

"The moment I heard the story about his being denied the ability to be a lawyer was the moment I decided to become one. I was four," said Abella.

In 2004, Prime Minister Paul Martin named Abella as the first Jewish woman to sit on the bench of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Click 'listen' above to hear Rosalie Abella's address to new graduates. 

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