The Honourable Rosalie Abella and the Honourable Mahmud Jamal

Supreme Esteem: Twin tributes that really do justice

  • June 01, 2022
  • The Honourable Rosalie Abella and The Honourable Mahmud Jamal

On May 26, 2022, the OBA welcomed a full house of admiring, esteemed and enthusiastic members of the bench and bar to our Supreme Evening, a gala event that paid tribute to two formidable justice sector leaders, The Honourable Rosalie Abella and the Honourable Mahmud Jamal, and celebrated two remarkable careers on the Supreme Court – one concluding and one just beginning.

As OBA President Karen Perron noted in her opening remarks, the two venerable and distinct honorees share common threads of “integrity and empathy, of enviable wisdom and willingness to listen with an open mind, to find solutions and to make things better for everyone.”  In an evening that honoured “a passing of a precious baton from safe, strong hands to safe, strong hands,” everyone was most keen to hear from the guests of honour, whose praise for each other conveyed respect, kinship, humour, and genuine affection. The justices have kindly allowed us to share excerpts from their remarks.


Justice Rosalie Abella’s tribute to Justice Mahmud JamalJustice Rosalie Abella

If you’re a really lucky lawyer, you get to practise law with good lawyers who are also good people. You get to put together what you know about law, with what your clients want from the law. You get to solve problems and you get to bring relief to people who have been in pain for a long time.

And, if you’re really lucky, your clients will be grateful that you’re committed but not mean, smart but not a smart Alec, and confident but not arrogant. Lucky because these are the elements of professionalism that most good lawyers aspire to and are judged by: intelligence, compassion, commitment and humility. And all in the service of the public and of how the public sees us. 

“He made his case with the skill of a fly fisherman”

Mahmud Jamal is a very lucky lawyer. I can’t think of a lawyer who represents our best professional self more than he does. 

When he stood up in the Supreme Court to make his pitch, we were mesmerized. Whether it was a 5-minute plea on behalf of an intervenor, or a 60-minute thesis on behalf of a party, he was radiant. He made his case with the skill of a fly fisherman - if he thought his bait wasn’t getting enough judicial bites, he tried another angle, or changed his boat. It was like watching an artist with a full command of his craft, an artist who loved his rhetorical creation and did his best to persuade the 9 of us that we should love it too. Or at least like it. Or not hate it. 

What struck me, as I look back on his brilliant advocacy, was how articulate, elegant and modest he always was. At first, I thought it was because he had a British accent. Everyone with a British accent sounds brilliant, articulate and elegant, and sometimes even modest. Now, I’m completely sure that it was because of his British accent, but it was also, it turns out, because he really is brilliant, articulate, elegant and modest. And, as the British would say, he’s a mensch.

“He’s become one of the nine he used to dazzle”

And now, it’s the public and the Supreme Court of Canada that’s really lucky, because he’s become one of the nine he used to dazzle. And he is going to keep dazzle us for the next 346 years because he’s only 12 years old. 

He is refined, thoughtful and considerate, joyfully married to the extraordinary Goleta, and has two amazing sons. It is a magnificent family he deeply and rightly cherishes.

For him, it wasn’t exactly a straight and predictable line from Kenya to the Supreme Court. Detours in foreign countries like England and Alberta, and university degrees from U of T, McGill and Vale, plus clerkships at the Quebec court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada all prove that you don’t have to be a woman to be an overachiever. 

“I feel so honoured that history has forever linked our names in the Supreme chain”

I’m really lucky too, because I got to be a lawyer and a judge, which brilliant lawyers I loved and learned from, and brilliant judges I loved and learned from. This incredibly generous OBA dinner is proof of how lucky I’ve been. But tonight, what makes me feel particularly lucky is that the first white immigrant and first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court of Canada has been replaced by the first non-white immigrant and first Bahai on the Supreme Court of Canada.

Mahmoud, I feel so honoured that history has forever linked our names in the Supreme chain.

Together, we — all of us — are Canada, a Canada for the future and a Canada that belongs to everyone. Thank you, OBA, for celebrating the great Justice Mahmoud Jamal, for letting me share in the celebration, and for your extraordinary generosity to both of us.

Photo of handwritten notes from Justice Abella's speech










Justice Mahmud Jamal’s homage to Justice Rosalie AbellaJustice Jamal

I’ve been fortunate to have known Rosie for more than 30 years as a law student, lawyer, and now as a judge. For most of that time, my interactions with her were mediated by a podium. But over the past year, I’ve also had the privilege of getting to know her on a more personal level. Each encounter with her has been memorable.

I first encountered Rosie over 30 years ago, in 1989 or 1990, when she was a visiting professor at McGill and I was a first-year law student. She gave an inspiring talk to the first-year class about our futures in the legal profession. After her talk, I plucked up the courage to ask her a question about the role of passion in advocacy. Rosie’s answer won’t surprise anyone here: passion is important, but so are intelligent analysis and careful preparation.

I next saw Rosie a few years later, in courtroom number two at Osgoode Hall. It was my first appearance before the Court of Appeal for Ontario, in what was otherwise an entirely forgettable bankruptcy case. I was representing the appellant, and happily, the appeal was allowed from the bench. I was flustered by what had just happened and turned to the other counsel to ask them whether my client had been awarded costs. Perhaps Rosie sensed the fear of a young lawyer who would have to tell a senior partner that he had forgotten to ask for costs, because she leaned forward and whispered audibly into the courtroom, “Yes, we awarded you costs.”

“Rosie was always way ahead of you.”

I later had the good fortune of appearing before Rosie often at the Supreme Court … I always appreciated Rosie’s warmth. But what I admired even more was how she was always meticulously prepared for appeals. Her preparation was evident as soon as oral submissions began. She always asked really smart questions, the sort of questions that as counsel you would usually stumble upon only a day or two before the hearing. Rosie was always way ahead of you. She made it look easy to be a Supreme Court of Canada judge. But I can tell you, it isn’t easy. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. After almost a year in the job, I now have just a sense of how hard Rosie must have worked, of how much of her energy, passion, and talent she poured into the role and into the difficult task of articulating our shared values.          

…Over the years, I ran into Rosie a few times outside of court. As many others have said, what always strikes you about her is her warmth and genuineness. She is always interested in getting to know you as an individual. Of course, with Rosie, there are also always the hugs and the kisses, and for some of us who may be more reserved, that can sometimes be a little hard to process. But it doesn’t take long to realize that she is the real deal — that she genuinely cares about you and wants you to succeed in all aspects of your life, both personal and professional.

“She told me that I would soon learn what it is to have a Jewish mother.”

I learned this in spades when I was nominated to the Court. Rosie was quick to call and offer me words of encouragement, advice, and support — words that literally nobody else in the world but her could say. I think she must have sensed my uncertainty about what I had signed up for, because she told me that I soon would learn what it is to have a Jewish mother. And she’s been true to her word. Her support and encouragement have often buoyed me through a challenging first year. Rosie, that’s something for which I will always be very grateful.

But what is it about Rosie that makes her not only so respected and admired, but also so loved? I can’t do justice to that question in the time I have, but let me briefly offer three reasons.

“Her life story, her several careers, and her brilliant jurisprudence are all profiles in courage.”

The first reason is Rosie’s courage, both moral and intellectual. Aristotle famously wrote that courage is the first among the virtues because it makes all other virtues possible. Well, Rosie is without doubt the most courageous person I know. Her life story, her several careers, and her brilliant jurisprudence are all profiles in courage. It takes courage to come from where Rosie came, to go where nobody else has ever gone, and to say what nobody else has ever said — all while trying to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

The second reason is Rosie’s compassion. Rosie not only has genuine compassion, she is never afraid of showing it. The political philosopher John Rawls could have had Rosie’s jurisprudence in mind when he founded his principles of justice on the right of each person to the same scheme of basic liberties, the principle of fair equality of opportunity for all, and the need to consider the least advantaged members of society. As we all know, the least advantaged Canadians have never had a more fervent champion on the Supreme Court of Canada than Rosie.

“Rosie is the quintessential authentic thinker.”

The last reason is Rosie’s authenticity. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote that the privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are, to become your authentic self. I doubt whether Rosie ever had any difficulty being who she truly is. But if she did, she had certainly overcome that challenge by the time she took her seat on the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004. Over the last seventeen years, the pages of the Supreme Court Reports have been graced with the eloquent words of someone who has been utterly true to herself and to what she believes. Rosie is the quintessential authentic thinker. As Canadians, we are, and will remain, the beneficiaries of her authentic and unapologetic jurisprudence.

So let me close by saying on behalf of all of us, thank you, Rosie, for your courage, for your compassion, and for your authenticity, and thank you, Itchie and the Abella family, for sharing Rosie with Canada and with the world. We are forever in your debt.