Klarissa Jeiel: Where Law Meets Design

Justice Abella’s Inspirational Retirement Speech

A law student's thoughts on the heartfelt and inspirational retirement speech by Justice Rosalie Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time but never got around to doing it until now. On May 21, 2021, Justice Rosalie Abella heard her last appeal at the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC). Appointed in October 2004, she was the Court’s longest-serving member. Her mandatory retirement was on July 1, 2021. Prior to hearing her last case, Justice Abella gave a heartfelt and inspirational retirement speech that I’m thankful I had the opportunity to listen to.

She recounted her 45-year long journey as a judge, beginning in 1976 when she was appointed to the family division of the provincial court. She spoke of the many roles she took on after including among other things a labour board chair, a royal commissioner, and a law professor at McGill. She spoke of the law, of change, of opportunities, of family….she spoke of many things. And it was a very powerful and moving speech.

Throughout my 1L year, I spent a great deal of time reading court cases and judges’ decisions, including Justice Abella’s. Some of them I agreed with, others I disagreed with (with a passion). But either way, after a while of reading decision after decision, you sort of become detached. You tend to forget that there’s a person behind the words. Justice Abella’s speech was a great reminder that judges are human too.

I highly recommend listening to it (or watching it here). There’s so much wisdom and value to be gained. Who knows, you might learn something.

Justice Abella mentioned that when she was appointed to the provincial court, “at the bottom of the judicial hierarchy,” a lot of her friends urged her not to accept the offer because they were convinced she would eventually make it to the federal trial bench.

But she said, she had no ambition of going to the federal trial bench or any bench. She said,

People like me—female, jewish, immigrant, refugee, were not exactly appointed to the bench in droves. All I was aspiring to do when I graduated from law school with 5 other women was to be a really good lawyer. But if somebody wanted to make me a judge, who was I to say no to the opportunity? Immigrants live for opportunities, not entitlements. We don’t think about where our careers finish line should be, mostly we’re just grateful to have careers and the chance to contribute to the country that let us in.

Wow. As an immigrant woman of colour, these words resonated with me in ways I couldn’t explain. Justice Abella never considered whether saying yes to becoming a provincial judge or any of the other positions she took on after would lead to a seat in the SCC. According to her, she instead saw every opportunity as a wonderful opportunity to contribute and to learn about the law, about people, about policy and about life.

Justice Abella was the first Jewish woman on the SCC. She was, in her words, one of ten women who have sat on the supreme court, one of the thousands of women who joined the legal profession, and one of the hundreds of women who became judges. She is an inspiration to women and immigrants everywhere.

She continued,

Isn’t that this generation’s story of justice? Story of change? Story that started with insistent questions about who was in the mainstream, who wasn’t and if they weren’t, why not? We question the role of women, of persons with disabilities, of indigenous persons, of race, religion, gender identities, bilingualism, multiculturalism, and the role of law itself. And all this made us question the role of courts. All of the social, political and economic realignments happening around us meant that judges could no longer just be defenders of the status quo. We had to accept that justice was the application of law to life, not just the application of laws to facts.

Towards the end of her speech, she spoke of her family with tears in her eyes, thanking them for all the love, support and inspiration they have given her. It was truly a heartfelt and inspiring speech that I wanted to share because I strongly believe more people need to hear it.