Saskatchewan’s first female chief justice

By Deana Driver

July 18 2008


While most of her Grade 6 friends were “playing teacher” in their spare time, Carol Snell was pretending that she was Perry Mason, deeply involved in cross-examining witnesses and solving crimes like the popular television attorney of the day.

It was a short-lived dream that faded during the next several years. After graduating from high school in Regina, Snell pursued an undergrad degree in psychology and sociology at Queen’s University. She began volunteering at Joyceville Penitentiary in Kingston and “became very interested in criminology,” but still hadn’t made the connection that her real future was to be a bright Crown prosecutor who would later become Saskatchewan’s first female chief judge.

This Perry Mason wannabe actually became a lawyer by chance. She discovered that the social sciences’ Masters program at the University of Ottawa wasn’t to her liking so she withdrew from it and “had to choose something else” to appease her mother, who would not have been pleased if her education had stopped there. Snell returned to her home province and enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan Faculty of Law.

“I chose law for reasons that would be incomprehensible to anybody who actually knows about law,” Snell told The Lawyers Weekly. “I wanted something that was certain. I decided I was tired of the social sciences that were not quite so black and white and I believed that law was black and white. So I went into it with no appreciation of what law was actually going to be, but I absolutely loved it once I started.”

From May 2006 to January 2008, Snell was the Provincial Court’s associate chief judge. In June 2007, the province announced that she would begin a seven-year term in January 2008 as chief judge of Saskatchewan’s Provincial Court to replace then Chief Judge Gerald Seniuk.

Her appointment was a first in two respects – the first woman appointed to hold a chief judge position in Saskatchewan and the first time the government of the day consulted with the opposition party to agree to a chief judge appointment ahead of a pending election. Snell is both pleased and philosophical about her appointment.

“It’s a tremendous honour. The court is a hard-working, well respected court. It’s known nationally and internationally for the diligence of the judges and judicial excellence of the decisions.”

Saskatchewan judges have been actively involved in the Canadian Association of Provincial Court Judges, including her own stint as chair of the committee on law, and former Chief Judge Gerald Seniuk was known for his international work primarily in Ukraine, she added.

“To be the first (female in that role) is an honour but the times are changing. At this point in time there are actually four other women chief judges in Canada and, of course, the chief justice of the country is a woman and I think that’s wonderful. I think it’s more a reflection of the women who have shown that they are hard workers, they have now acquired a great deal of experience and hopefully they are known for their integrity. I think those things are more important than gender.”

Snell was particularly pleased that her appointment had no political overtones. “It reflected the respect government has for the court. The crucial thing about the Canadian judiciary is that it is impartial and independent.”

As Chief Judge, Snell will oversee 47 other Provincial Court judges working in 13 permanent judicial centres and 77 circuit points, 16 of which are on First Nations’ land. While she will miss the work of applying law to certain cases, taking a turn in court only when she has a break in her schedule, Snell is looking forward to the challenging work of seeing the court as a whole and “trying to think of ways you can improve what the court does. Most important is providing a safe, secure, comfortable environment for all the litigants and everyone who has to use the court services. That takes you into issues of security, access to justice, where the court sits, representation, providing assistance, plus making sure the judges have what they need so they can do the job, that we have enough judges, that we’re putting them in the right places. It’s quite a bit different but it’s very exciting to be part of the process of trying to make the court work better and be more accessible.”