Rosalie Silberman Abella

In 1984 Justice Rosalie Abella made a mark that resonates today when she was appointed as the Commissioner of the Royal Commission of Equality in Employment. She literally invented the term employment equity and changed the country’s understanding of equality for women, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and visible minorities for generations. Some regard that work as her most lasting but she is recognized in other ways around the world.

On being a judge

We are all shaped by what we come from. Some people embrace what they’ve come from. Some people spend a fair bit of energy trying to distance themselves. I’ve never felt anything but a seamless relationship with who I was so I am unabashedly committed to the values that increase justice for people. I am not at all embarrassed about the fact that I am shaped by who I am. I have learned as a judge that you take who you are, you take your own experiences, but when you are in the courtroom, you have to understand that what you are listening to may have nothing to do with any of that.

Learning to be a judge means learning to put your own views aside and actually listen, keeping your mind open, listening to the arguments. Judging isn’t about me. It is not a top down exercise. It is looking at the world through the eyes of the people who are before us, who we are judging, to see what their world looks like and then applying the law to it as fair a way as you can.

Why the work on employment equity is so important

The whole notion of inclusion, of keeping our focus on who is excluded and making sure that we include more is really what has made Canada’s multi-culturalism such a world-wide success because in that report it was a chance to think about what equality means to Canada. I travelled across the country to seventeen cities in six weeks and I was able to build on a set of diverse experiences that made where I have ended up a much more enriching responsibility for me. It wasn’t just law I learned about along the way. I learned about policy, I learned about people, I learned about life, and I always stayed open to the possibility of what I knew wasn’t the end of the story.

What worries me

I am deeply worried about the state of justice in the world. I was born right after World War II. That was the devastating war that inspired the nations of the world to unite in democratic solidarity and commit themselves conceptually, aspirationally, institutionally, and legally to the promotion and protection of values designed to prevent a repetition of the war’s unimaginable human rights abuses.

Yet here we are in 2017, barely seven decades later, watching “never again” turn into “again and again,” and watching that wonderful democratic consensus fragment, shattered by narcissistic populism, an unhealthy tolerance for intolerance, a cavalier indifference to equality, a deliberate amnesia about the instruments and values of democracy that are no less crucial than elections, and a shocking disrespect for the borders between power and its independent adjudicators like the press and the courts.

Keynote Address – Brandeis University Commencement – 2017

If there is a failure of rights somewhere there is a failure of rights potentially everywhere and the greater our tolerance becomes for abuses that we shouldn’t for a second tolerate the less we become the world I was born into in 1946.

We’ve lost the ability as a global community it seems to figure out how to develop moral standards that are enforceable.

The role of the courts

Justice is the application of law to life, not to the facts. There was no such concept as judicial activism when the charter first came in. Then we got the charter and the country reacted positively to the assignment by the legislature to judges to protect rights which were now constitutional.

Of course judges are active. When you interpret a law, – which is what we do, – you are making law. Judges have always made law. You never heard the word judicial activism when judges restricted rights.

We interpret statutes. We interpret laws and policies, and we interpret constitutions and the constitution since 1982 included the protection of rights, human rights and civil liberty. We are there to do the right thing on the public interests’ behalf, not on behalf of one side or the other, and there is no court case where the person who doesn’t win ever feels the court got it right

The rule of law

What worries me about the rule of law is that it is one of those malleable terms that I am comfortable with when people who have a view of democracy I share use, but I also find it is sometimes used by people who are defending the law of rules without the texture of the rule of law, – so for me I have always thought we are talking about the rule of justice, – the just rule of the law, – because it isn’t just law. Law gave us segregation, it gave us apartheid, it gave us genocidal discrimination in the Third Reich, – so I don’t have the same affection for the term because I don’t think it really tells the public what it is we are doing.

And I am getting the same nervousness about the word democracy. Democracy to me had always meant the relationship between the state, the court, rights, the press, minority – it was a balancing. It has come to mean, what does the majority want and that is a threat to the perception of the courts because courts don’t always do what the majority wants. We are the institution with the independence sometimes to defend and protect and promote the rights of minorities who don’t reflect what the majority wants.

One on One Interview with Evan Solomon – CTV News – 2021.05.23
Part One
Part Two

The Honourable Rosalie Silberman Abella

Justice Abella was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004. She is the first Jewish woman appointed to the Court.

She was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1997, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007, and to the American Philosophical Society in 2018. In 2020, she was awarded the Knight Commander‘s Cross of the Order of Merit by the President of Germany.

Supreme Court Justice

Report of the Commission on Equality in Employment

It is desirable that an inquiry be made into the opportunities for employment of women, native people, disabled persons and visible minorities in certain crown corporations and corporations wholly owned by the Government of Canada.

Report of the Commission on Equality in Employment – October 1984 – PDF

Brandeis University Commencement

“It’s not what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for.”

Keynote Address – Brandeis University Commencement – 2017
Keynote Address – Brandeis University Commencement – YouTube

Doing Justice to her father’s dream

Rosalie Abella was inspired to become a lawyer after her father’s own hopes of a legal career were shattered by his status as a Jew in Poland and an immigrant in Canada. This spring the Supreme Court judge embarked on a journey to his past
Doing Justice to her father’s dream
Sean Fine – Globe and Mail – 2016.07.29

2016 Nuremberg Symposium

The speech of her life: ‘Who I am, what I am, what I believe in, and what I hope for, all started with the Holocaust,’ Justice Rosalie Abella tells delegates in her closing address to the 70th-anniversary Nuremberg symposium in Krakow.

The Honourable Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella
Closing Remarks – Nuremberg Symposium – May 4, 2016 – YouTube


Conference to Celebrate the Retirement of the Honourable Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella from the Supreme Court of Canada. University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, Spring 2022

To mark the retirement of the Honourable Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella from the Supreme Court of Canada on July 1, 2021, the uOttawa Public Law Centre, the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice, the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, and The Advocates’ Society will hold a two-day conference examining her influence on law and society.

Celebration Conference
Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice

Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice

The Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice is an organization which links individuals and institutions involved in the administration of justice. Its work is multi-disciplinary and wide-ranging. Collaborating with governments, professional associations, law schools, members of the legal profession and of the public, it sponsors and conducts conferences and specialized seminars and prepares comprehensive background papers.

Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice

Creative Connections

Creating Our Legal Systems
Creating Our Government Systems