Michelle O’Bonsawin Confirmed As Canada’s First Indigenous Supreme Court Justice
Canadian judge Michelle O’Bonsawin made history this week when the Prime Minister’s office confirmed her appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada. When O’Bonsawin takes her seat on Thursday, she will be the first Indigenous justice to sit on Canada’s highest court. O’Bonsawin is a fluently bilingual Franco-Ontarian, and a member of the Abenaki Odanak First Nation in Quebec.
The Prime Minister’s office described her as “widely respected”, and released a summary of her “distinguished” 20-year legal career. In 2017, O’Bonsawin became the first Indigenous woman to be appointed to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. Prior to that, she was the General Counsel for the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group, as well as counsel with Canada Post and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. She is frequently cited on Indigenous issues, and has taught Indigenous law at the University of Ottawa. Her legal work has focused on labour and employment law, mental health, and human rights. In a public statement welcoming O’Bonsawin to the court, Chief Justice Richard Wagner called the new justice a “principled, authentic and hard-working” jurist.
While O’Bonsawin says that Indigenous legal traditions will inform her perspective, she also rebuffed suspicions of partiality, telling lawmakers “I’m a judge first and an Indigenous person… afterwards.” Nevertheless, she says that her life experience and background working with disenfranchised communities are an important part of her work. She also says that she hopes to serve as an inspiration to young women, both Indigenous and not, and that her example encourages them to follow their dreams.
O’Bonsawin is Trudeau’s fifth appointment the Supreme Court. She will replace outgoing justice Michael Moldaver, who will reach the court’s mandatory retirement age of 75 in December. Some legal analysts project that her appointment will result in a significant liberalization of the court, particularly with regards to the interpretation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Moldaver, who was tied for longest-serving member of the current court, long endorsed a relatively narrow approach to the Charter rights. At the time of his retirement in May, experts predicted that Trudeau would seek a replacement who supported a more generous interpretation and expansion of these rights. While O’Bonsawin’s background would seem to confirm this assessment, only time will tell what impact she will have on the court and Canada’s constitutional jurisprudence.