Michelle O’Bonsawin nominated as Canada’s first Indigenous Supreme Court justice

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nominated Ontario judge Michelle O’Bonsawin to the Supreme Court of Canada on Friday. She is the first Indigenous person chosen to sit on Canada’s top court and the appointment is being celebrated as filling an important role at the highest level of the country’s justice system.


O’Bonsawin has been a judge at Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice in Ottawa since 2017 and, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, has “expertise in the areas of mental health, Gladue principles, labour and employment law, human rights, and privacy.”


In a statement announcing the nomination, Trudeau said that O’Bonsawin is an Abenaki member of the Odanak First Nation and is a fluently bilingual Franco-Ontarian who was born in Hanmer, Ont.


Prior to making history as the first Indigenous woman to become a judge at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, O’Bonsawin was general counsel for the Royal Ottawa, a specialized mental health hospital in Ottawa. She began her legal career with the legal services at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and has also worked as counsel for Canada Post.


In addition to teaching Indigenous law at the University of Ottawa and serving on its board of governors, earlier this year O’Bonsawin successfully defended her PhD thesis on the application of Gladue principles, which are ways for courts to consider the experiences of Indigenous people when making sentencing decisions.


“Canada’s top court has always been missing an individual to interpret Canadian laws through an Indigenous lens – but not anymore,” said National Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples Elmer St. Pierre, in a statement on Friday. “O’Bonsawin will help balance Canada’s top bench, providing a vital viewpoint on the country’s most important legal matters.”


AFN National Chief RoseAnn Archibald said O’Bonsawin is “making #HERstory.”


“It’s an important appointment at a critical time and Justice O’Bonsawin is a qualified choice,” Archibald tweeted.


Former senator, justice, and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Murray Sinclair—who advised O’Bonsawin on her application for the position—said he knows how proud her community must be to see her reach this milestone.


“The court is made stronger, and our decisions are better, when there are diverse perspectives where they are needed most. This is especially true as it relates to issues facing Canada’s long journey of reconciliation,” Sinclair said. “It is long past due that the court has a seat for an Indigenous Justice, one who has seen first-hand the impact of colonialism on Indigenous communities.”


Chief of the Odanak First Nation Richard O’Bomsawin— a distant cousin of the incoming Supreme Court justice—confirmed what Sinclair had suggested, telling CTV News that she has made her community “very, very proud,” and is setting a positive example for other aspiring First Nations’ people.


“We need to always strive, go forward, and reach for the stars,” he said. “And she has proven this can be done.”


Ahead of O’Bonsawin joining the eight other Supreme Court justices, the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights Committee will hear from Justice Minister David Lametti and chair of the independent advisory panel that considered this vacancy, former PEI premier Wade MacLauchlan, about the selection process and her nomination.


Then, the committee will participate, alongside members of the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in a question-and-answer session with O’Bonsawin to hear more directly from her about her career, experiences, and goals in the new role. These steps were part of a transparency-motivated change to the selection process made by the Liberals in 2016.


As part of her application, O’Bonsawin wrote about her experience as a First Nations’ lawyer, and said that as a child in a working-class household, it was her “dream” 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,” she wrote. O’Bonsawin also said her most significant contribution to the law and pursuit of justice in Canada is her “effort to assist all 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 Métis,” she continued.


For Claudette Commanda, the first Indigenous person to be appointed chancellor of the University of Ottawa, Trudeau’s latest Supreme Court pick “speaks volumes.”


“What Michelle will bring to the table—or to the bench—she’s bringing her knowledge as a First Nations woman. She’s bringing her knowledge as a lawyer, her knowledge as a judge, and it’s going to help to give a more in-depth understanding of those issues,” Commanda told CTV News. “This is what I see as reconciliation.”


In offering his public congratulations, Lametti called O’Bonsawin’s nomination “a historic moment” for the Supreme Court and for Canada.


The process to select the next Supreme Court justice was launched in April. An independent advisory board chaired by former PEI premier Wade MacLauchlan then considered candidates and sent Trudeau a shortlist of names to consider.


“Her nomination is the result of an open, non-partisan selection process. I am confident that Justice O’Bonsawin will bring invaluable knowledge and contributions to our country’s highest court,” Trudeau said in a statement.


O’Bonsawin’s nomination is to fill the vacancy created by the upcoming Sept. 1 retirement of Supreme Court Justice Michael Moldaver.


With files from CTV National News’ Judy Trinh




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