Michelle O’Bonsawin named first Indigenous Supreme Court justice

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M’CHIGEENG—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed the appointment of Ontario judge Michelle O’Bonsawin to the Supreme Court of Canada on August 26. Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare and Marion Jacko, Children’s Lawyer for Ontario and acting assistance deputy attorney general of Ontario (Indigenous Justice Division), were among the many people to congratulate Justice O’Bonsawin as the first ever Indigenous justice to sit on the country’s highest bench.

“She is the first ever Indigenous justice and Indigenous woman to be nominated and it is with great pride that I acknowledge this historic achievement,” said Ontario Regional Chief Hare.

“It is absolutely great news,” said Acting Assistant Deputy Attorney General Jacko. “I think there is always a need, particularly for a female and an Indigenous female, in leadership positions. It’s amazing.”

Justice O’Bonsawin comes to the Supreme Court after spending five years as a judge at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice (OSCJ) in Ottawa. When she was appointed to OSCJ in 2017, she was the first Indigenous woman judge of that court. Justice O’Bonsawin has also taught law at the University of Ottawa and served as the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group’s general counsel for eight years. She is experienced in labour, employment, mental health and Indigenous law and Gladue principles.

The new Supreme Court of Canada judge is a fluently bilingual Franco-Ontarian and an Abenaki member of the Odanak First Nation. She grew up in Hanmer  and her undergraduate studies were at Laurentian University in Sudbury. She recalled the adversity her family experienced while she was growing up as a young First Nation person off-reserve. “The lack of respect shown to my father and our family affected me as I was growing up,” she said. “My childhood was not a privileged one.”

She believes her experience as a Francophone First Nations woman, a parent, a lawyer, a scholar and a judge provides her with “the lived understanding and insight into Canada’s diversity because I, and my life experience, are part of that diversity. My background is a clear example of the intersectional diversity that makes our country so special to me and my family.”

“My experiences have taught me that while discrimination is an ongoing reality in Canada, my abilities allow me to contribute to our country and assist us to be a more inclusive society, not to mention one that is fair and just to all,” she said.

Justice O’Bonsawin said she hopes to inspire young Indigenous and non-Indigenous women to pursue their dreams. “I come from a very small rural area where I was told, ‘Michelle, you’re not likely going to be a lawyer because you come from this small town in Northern Ontario,’” she said. “But at the end of the day, if you work hard and your heart is in it, you can go and do what you want.”

She hopes that young people, including Indigenous women, will see that anything is possible if they set their mind to it.

While her cultural background will inform her decisions, she will remain objective in her work, Justice O’Bonsawin said. “I’m a judge first and an Indigenous person and a mother and a Franco-Ontarian afterwards,” she told Parliamentarians. “I think what’s important for me to remember is my roots and the voice I bring, my life experience but also my background as someone who’s worked in mental health law, Indigenous issues and also in labour and employment and human rights.”

During the session, Justice O’Bonsawin said Indigenous legal traditions will inform her perspective but she is only one voice among nine. “I am a voice at the table,” she said. “I bring my background as an Indigenous mother of two sons and everything that comes with all of my background. What I can tell you is I live my traditions. I bring these traditions and my heritage to the table.”

In an appearance before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on August 24, Justice O’Bonsawin said her most significant contribution to the law and pursuit of justice in Canada is her effort to assist all those involved in the justice and mental health system, with a particular emphasis on Indigenous peoples. “I strive for the judiciary to clarify the legal issues in order to have an inclusive and compassionate legal system for First Nations, Inuit and Metis,” she said.

“As a First Nations woman growing up in Northern Ontario, I became aware of the need for dedicated individuals to provide a strong, representative voice on behalf of those who could not speak for themselves,” she told parliamentarians at a Q&A session on August 24. “As a child, it was my dream and desire to become a lawyer. Taking into account my upbringing, it became apparent to me as a lawyer that my next goal was to become a judge in order to share my life’s experience and to continue my public service. During this journey, I have remained rooted in my Odanak First Nation.”

Minister of Justice and Attorney General for Canada David Lametti told the committee the appointment is important for Indigenous people and that she will improve “the substance of legal decisions” from the top court.

“It is extremely important that Indigenous peoples be able to see themselves in what are, quite frankly, colonial institutions,” he said. “It’s incredibly important to have that diversity reflected in the deliberations of those nine justices of the Supreme Court but it’s also critically important for everyone else throughout the system to know that this is possible.”

“This is a great accomplishment for Justice O’Bonsawin,” said Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare. “With her experience spanning over two decades, she brings a wealth of knowledge, judicial experience and commitment. I am certain she will bring invaluable contributions and insight to Canada’s highest court. On behalf of the Chiefs of Ontario, we send our support and best wishes to Justice O’Bonsawin.”

Chief Justice of Canada, the Rt. Hon. Richard Wagner, welcomed the appointment of Justice O’Bonsawin to the Supreme Court of Canada. “Justice O’Bonsawin is an esteemed jurist in the areas of mental health, Indigenous, labour and employment law,” he stated. “Throughout her career as a lawyer and a judge, she has proven herself to be principled, authentic and hardworking. My colleagues and I are very pleased to welcome the Court’s first Indigenous member, which further enables all Canadians to see themselves reflected in their institutions, including the Supreme Court of Canada.”

Justice O’Bonsawin’s appointment takes effect September 1 and fills the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Michael Modaver. Chief Justice Wagner will swear in Justice O’Bonsawin that same day at a private ceremony at the Supreme Court. Another welcome ceremony will take place in November.