One Woman Makes a Difference – Justice Bertha Wilson (Throwback Thursday)

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The spring of 1982 was marked by two landmark events in Canadian legal history:

  • Bertha Wilson was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada as the first female Justice of the Supreme Court on March 4, and
  • The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was proclaimed into force on April 17.

Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, Bertha Wilson received a Master of Arts degree in philosophy from the University of Aberdeen in 1944 and immigrated to Canada in 1945. Wilson began to study law in the era when the legal profession was categorically male-dominated. When Wilson applied to Dalhousie Law School in 1954, Dean Horace said to her, “Madam, we have no room here for dilettantes. Why don’t you just go home and take up crocheting?” Even in 1982 when she was appointed to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Bora Laskin advised Pierre Trudeau that there were more men deserving.

Bertha Wilson captured public attention by her decisions in cases involving human rights, ethnic and gender discrimination, and  matrimonial property. Her concurrence in R. v. Morgentaler ([1988] 1 S.C.R. 30) altered the course of Section 7 of the Charter. Until 1988, under the Criminal Code, an attempt to induce an abortion by any means was a crime. The first physician prosecuted for performing an abortion was Dr. Henry Morgentaler. Wilson’s concurring decision overturned the Criminal Code’s restrictions on abortion for violating a woman’s rights to “security of person”. In another landmark decision R. v. Lavallee ([1990] 1 S.C.R. 852), Justice Wilson authored the majority decision that accepted battered-wife syndrome in respect of a defence of self-defence to a murder charge.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin commended Wilson for being a “pioneer” in shaping the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Wilson famously posed the question, “Will women judges really make a difference?” ((1990), 28 OHLJ 507) as the title for her 4th Annual Betcherman Lecture at Osgoode Hall Law School in 1990. She concluded her lecture saying:

“If women lawyers and women judges through their differing perspectives on life can bring a new humanity to bear on the decision-making process, perhaps they will make a difference. Perhaps they will succeed in infusing the law with an understanding of what it means to be fully human.”

 

Sources:

Supreme Court of Canada: The Honourable Madam Justice Bertha Wilson (http://www.scc-csc.gc.ca/court-cour/judges-juges/bio-eng.aspx?id=bertha-wilson)

The Canadian Encyclopedia (http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/bertha-wilson/)

Kent Roach, “Justice Bertha Wilson: A Classically Liberal Judge” (https://www.law.utoronto.ca/documents/Roach/_08_Roach.Wilson.pdf)

 

 

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