Abenaki jurist Michelle O’Bonsawin will start on the Supreme Court of Canada on Sept. 1, according to a release from the Prime Minister’s Office.
“Justice O’Bonsawin is an accomplished jurist with expertise in the areas of mental health, Gladue principles, labour and employment law, human rights, and privacy law, and has been a judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Ottawa since 2017,” said a release sent out Friday morning.
O’Bonsawin sat in front of a selection committee chaired by former premier of Prince Edward Island, Wade MacLauchlan, on Aug. 24 where she discussed her background and her experience – especially around Gladue principles in legal representation and sentencing.
“That comes back to education of judges where it is important for everyone in the legal community, not just judges but lawyers also, to understand what it means to represent an Indigenous person and ask the questions. Because, unfortunately, at times they’ll take the client as they come and they don’t ask more information other than the index offence and what happens.”
O’Bonsawin told the committee that she was particularly struck by the high number of Indigenous women who are in Canada’s prisons in response to a question from Senator Kim Pate.
“I think it was Dr. Zinger’s last report that showed Indigenous women are close to 50 per cent of the incarceration rates and we’re less than five per cent of the population,” she told the hearing.
“And you and I have worked on this in the past when you were with the Elizabeth Fry Society and I was with general counsel at the Royal (Ottawa Hospital), where we would deal with these issues where we had Indigenous people in the system. I think that education is the key.”
O’Bonsawin comes to the court after spending five years as a judge at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Ottawa.
She has also taught law at the University of Ottawa and served as the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group’s general counsel for eight years.
O’Bonsawin is an Abenaki member of the Odanak First Nation.
Court watchers are calling O’Bonsawin’s appointment a win for Indigeneity and inclusivity.
“I think the breadth of experience that she brings, the diversity and perspectives that she brings, will make the Supreme Court of Canada a stronger and better institution because it will be representative of multi-jurisdictional Canada,” said Val Napoleon, acting dean of law at the University of Victoria.
O’Bonsawin is the first Indigenous judge to sit on the Court.
The legal faculty at the University of Ottawa is ecstatic about the Abenaki woman’s appointment.
“She brings deep expertise and experience in Indigenous issues at a time when it’s very relevant to the Supreme Court of Canada,” said Kristin Boon, dean of law – common law section at the University of Ottawa.
“She is fluently bilingual. She was a mother with two teenage daughters while she was serving on the bench and she achieved her PhD. So, she has a really deep combination of academic expertise, as well as expertise in practice and judging.”
O’Bonsawin’s appointment will fill the vacancy left by Justice Michael Moldaver, who is set to retire Sept. 1.
With files from Fraser Needham.