On July 1, Canada’s longest serving member of the Supreme Court steps down, having reached the age of 75, when justices are required to retire.
Madam Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella is a remarkable Canadian. Her many years of judicial service have seen her shape Canadian law in the Charter era. She was the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court.
She was also the first female appointed as chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Her ground-breaking Royal Commission Report on Equality in Employment "changed the nature of Canadian workplaces," according to Lorna Marsden, former president of York University. Abella introduced the term "employment equity" and proposed its adoption by the federal government "to describe programs of positive remedy for discrimination in the Canadian workplace."
I met Abella twice. On both occasions, she inspired and left a lasting impression.
In 1992, she was asked by the Mulroney government to chair the constitutional conferences set up to deal with the crisis over the role of Quebec in Canada, the only province to not sign on to the 1982 Canadian Constitution.
I was selected as a labour delegate to the Halifax conference held to consider the "division of powers" in our country. Between Jan. 17 to 19, 1992, some 300 of us gathered, in a mass constituent assembly, to consider the issues that had challenged federal and provincial politicians for decades.
Abella had the unenviable task of serving as "conference rapporteur," and there appeared to be little prospect of consensus. Lo and behold, the conference achieved common ground in recommending "asymmetrical federalism" in which one size need not fit all, when it comes to the division of powers in Canada.
The subsequent national referendum of the Charlottetown Accord went down to defeat, and the report of the Halifax Conference is but a footnote in history.
What remains for me from that period was the indelible impression left by Abella — her command of language, her sheer intellect and her powerful leadership, which captured both the diversity and the alignment of the views of 300 citizens.
It was with pride that I watched her swearing-in ceremony in 2004 to the Supreme Court. She spoke that day on what adopting the charter meant for Canada, saying, "We strengthened our democracy by enhancing and guaranteeing its constituent rights and freedoms, and we enhanced our country by strengthening and guaranteeing its democratic values."
I last met Abella on a cool November evening in 2017, when she was spoke at the Adas Yeshurun Herzila Synagogue in River Heights. The title of her lecture that evening was "The Role of the Judiciary in a Democracy."
She spoke of Canadian justice having evolved in a "revolutionary way," calling the years since the adoption of the charter as a "justice juggernaut." She spoke of Canada’s judicial institutions as key components of our country’s democratic framework, and how Canadian democracy had been enhanced by the judiciary’s constitutional role.
Abella held little back in confronting what she termed "the right playing with words to deny rights." She spoke of Canadian pluralism and diversity as strengths that unify the country, offering that our country, as a "justice exporter," has much to offer the world.
Rosalie Silberman Abella, born in 1946 in a displaced-persons camp Germany, rose to the highest level of the Canadian judiciary. Her written decisions have shaped our country. Her spoken words have impacted well beyond our borders.
Her contributions to enhanced labour rights, to justice for all equity-seeking groups, and to expanded rights for women and people with disabilities are a tribute to her many skills being used to "speak truth to power" on behalf of those with little power.
She spoke on that cool November evening about "the real judge being time," about Canada today embracing "justice at its aspirational best."
She made Canada better. For this, we are all indebted to her.
Paul Moist is a retired labour leader