'They. Are. Women.'
Abella, Charron sworn in to Supreme Court
Appointments hailed as victory for women

Justice Rosalie Abella gestures during her swearing-in ceremony at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa yesterday. Louise Charron was also sworn in yesterday.



Oct. 5, 2004

OTTAWA—It's not the way it was written in the chief justice's speech welcoming judges Rosalie Abella and Louise Charron to the Supreme Court of Canada.


But it's the way Beverley McLachlin delivered the line: "They. Are. Women."


McLachlin was the first woman to be named to the top post on the country's top court. And hers was a powerful statement about real change on the high court's bench, and the impact it had even on the chief justice who usually treads lightly around questions of gender politics and the court.


Yesterday, for the first time in Canadian history, four women sat on the elevated judicial bench of the country's final court of appeal.


"No other comparable court, anywhere in the world, to my knowledge, has come so far in giving women a voice in its deliberations," said McLachlin.


Tomorrow, all nine judges get down to work as they begin to hear three days of arguments about a landmark reference case from the federal government on same-sex marriage.


But yesterday, in the formal walnut-panelled courtroom, there was an unmistakable sense of occasion.


Abella's speech, which referred to her family's experience in the Holocaust, evoked tears throughout the room.


Moments after Abella struggled to maintain her composure as she swore her judicial oath, and Charron firmly swore hers, McLachlin acknowledged it was a highly charged moment, for the new judges, their family and friends, but also for the court.


McLachlin had praised both former Ontario Court of Appeal justices as "learned judges" who bring to the job a high degree of competence in law, commitment and sense of humility about their judicial duties, and the ability to listen, empathize and decide difficult questions.


But it was, said McLachlin, a "memorable day" for the obvious reason: the two appointments represent a profound change to the makeup of the court, which at most ever had three women sitting at a time on the nine-member bench.


The impact of more women judges may not be known for a long time. Yet, McLachlin's own reaction suggests there will be one.


"I am proud that, with the appointment of Rosalie Silberman Abella, 58, and Louise Charron, 53, the composition of the Supreme Court now approaches an accurate reflection of the place of women within the judiciary, within the legal profession, and within Canadian society more generally."


McLachlin joked that even a commemorative stamp issued in 2000 on the court's 125th anniversary had got it wrong — picturing at the time five men and four women.


"Now that's what I call foresight," she quipped, adding the artist's "vision" is now reality.


Justice Minister Irwin Cotler — who last summer insisted gender had nothing to do with the appointment of the two women — yesterday boasted of the result, saying "the gender equity now on our court (makes) it the most representative in this matter of any court in the world."


"Have we reached gender equality nirvana today?" asked Ontario Attorney-General Michael Bryant. "Of course not. But my 2-year-old daughter will grow up in a country where her gender does not present a barrier to her nation's highest callings."


"I never thought in my lifetime I would see four women on the Supreme Court of Canada," grinned former justice Claire L'Heureux-Dubé, who retired in 2002, the second women ever appointed. Former justice Bertha Wilson, the first woman on the bench, also attended.


Only two women sit on the nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court of the United States. One woman sat on Australia's high court from 1987 to 2003, and one woman was appointed this year to sit among the 12 law lords of Britain.




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