For Women in Law By Women in Law

Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Inspiring Stories of Women Leaders

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This is the first of my series where I share success stories of women who have shattered glass ceilings in various industries. The purpose of this series is the highlight their journey, challenges they overcame, and impact they have had on paving the way for other women in the work place. 

Justice Rosalie Abella

Many Canadians outside of the legal industry may not know, but the former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Abella has led the way on many major decisions that impact our lives, especially those of us in marginalized communities. Justice Abella is a legal icon and equal rights champion. Here’s a little bit more about her story.

Justice Abella was born in a displaced persons camp in 1946 following the Holocaust. She immigrated to Canada as a refugee just before she turned four. She attended the University of Toronto, where she earned a B.A. in 1967 and an LL.B. in 1970. She graduated as one of five women in her class. Since this time, Justice Abella has gone on to be awarded with 40 honorary degrees.

In 1964, Justice Abella graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Music in classical piano. She was called to the Ontario Bar in 1972 and practised civil and criminal litigation until 1976 when she was appointed to the Ontario Family Court at the age of 29, the first pregnant person appointed to the judiciary in Canada. She was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1992.

It is difficult to summarize Justice Abella’s extensive legal successes in a short post, but some of her career milestones included:

– Justice Abella was the youngest woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004 since it was founded in 1875, the first Jewish woman and the first refugee to sit on the bench, and the first Canadian justice to become an internationally renowned human rights phenomenon.

– She was Chair and author of the Ontario Study on Access to Legal Services by the Disabled in 1983 and the sole Commissioner of the 1984 federal Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, creating the term and concept of “employment equity”. The theories of “equality” and “discrimination” she developed in her Royal Commission Report were adopted by the Supreme Court of Canada in its first decision dealing with equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedomsin 1989. You can read that decision here. The report has been implemented by the governments of Canada, New Zealand, Northern Ireland and South Africa.

– Justice Abella has been active in Canadian judicial education, organizing the first judicial seminar in which all levels of the judiciary participated, the first judicial seminar in which persons outside the legal profession were invited to participate, the first national education program for administrative tribunals, and the first national conference for Canada’s female judges.

– Justice Abella served as the first female chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board, and as chair of the Ontario Law Reform Commission. In this latter capacity, she was the first woman in the British Commonwealth to head a law reform commission.

If you are curious, Justice Abella racked up many other acolades, listed on the Supreme Court of Canada website, here.

Justice Abella retired from the Supreme Court of Canada in 2021 and left a legacy around the world for her groundbreaking work. She believed equality is not about treating everyone equally; it is about accommodating differences, and creating a playing field that is the same for everyone.

On her last day as a sitting judge at the Supreme Court of Canada, Justice Abella left us with these parting words: “Justice is the application of law to life, not just the application of laws to facts.” This sentiment echoes throughout her lifetime of contributions to the law, as one of the world’s most celebrated jurists.


About the Author

Jaeda Lee is an associate at Harper Grey LLP practicing in insurance law. An avid volunteer, Jaeda gives much of her time to the ACTS Water Charity, an organization focused on providing clean, accessible water to those who need it most.

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