Celebrating The Honourable Mary Jo Nolan and a Career Committed to Empowering People

  • December 12, 2021
  • Mana Khami

On November 25, 2021, in front of an audience of 70 admirers, the OBA presented the Honourable Mary Jo Nolan with the Award of Excellence in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in a virtual ceremony that I was honoured to chair both as her nominator and chair of the OBA ADR Section Executive.

A Career Spent Advocating for Access to Justice for Vulnerable Residents in Southwestern Ontario

A social worker for 15 years who worked for child welfare agencies in Toronto, Hamilton and Windsor, the Honourable Mary Jo Nolan pursued a law degree at Windsor Law at age 38.  Whether working in private practice or for government in the Ministry of Community and Social Services or Attorney General’s office, whether serving at the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee in London or the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Windsor, whether as a member of the bar or bench, she has devoted herself to advocating for access to justice for society’s most vulnerable.

She achieved many firsts along the way, including becoming the first female case management master in Ontario and the first female judge appointed to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Essex County. So, it’s only fitting that with this recent recognition, the retired judge who continues to contribute to her community as a mediator and an arbitrator at Nolan Mediation and Arbitration Services Inc in Windsor, marks another first: first recipient of the OBA Award of Excellence in Alternative Dispute Resolution from the Southwest Region.

Tributes to a Trailblazing Lawyer, Judge, Teacher, Mediator and Arbitrator

Following congratulatory remarks from OBA President Karen Perron, tribute speakers spoke about different parts of The Honourable Mary Jo Nolan's remarkable career journey.  It became very clear the level of respect and admiration everyone has for her.

Recounting Nolan’s varied history of public service, The Honourable Renee M. Pomerance, of the Ontario Superior Court Justice, observed, “[she] has consistently taken on the challenge of helping people to traverse what is sometimes their darkest hour, whether as a social worker, a lawyer, a judge, or now as a mediator and arbitrator. At each stage of her career, she has cared deeply about those who have come before her or have come to her for assistance.”

Harvey Strosberg, senior partner at Strosberg Sasso Sutts LLP, quoted Proverbs 31: 23-26, which he noted "so perfectly describes the Honourable Mary Jo Nolan when she was appointed a master, a judge, and now … She is clothed with strength and dignity and laughs at the days to come. She opens her mouth in wisdom; on her tongue is the Law.”

Peter Eberlie, who practices family law and mediation, described her as applying "her life experience, and her judicial experience to helping people resolve their disputes,” adding that, "in the COVID era, she has mastered and adapted Zoom hearings ... and continues to devote all of her time and energy to serving the lawyers in Ontario, and has also continued her support and commitment to the University of Windsor Law School, and the students, which are near and dear to her heart.”

Words of Wisdom

The Honourable Mary Jo Nolan delivered a beautiful speech in which she first thanked those who contributed to her personal life and her career. She then shared what she has learned as a mediator and an arbitrator along with her observations about careers, change, and life in general.

She spoke about how nothing gives her greater satisfaction, either when she was a judge or now that she is a mediator, than to settle a case, and let people get on with their lives. To her, it is about empowering people to take charge of their lives.

Here are some of her words of wisdom:

"We need a legal community that is vibrant, committed, diverse, and socially conscious; professionals who make others feel safe. We need the legal community that many of you are a part of offering mediation and arbitration to parties whose lives are on hold because they are embroiled in some kind of legal dispute, often with other family members. Mediation offers a kinder and gentler approach to resolving problems, as well as empowering people. You are a part of that community. You are also a part of the wider legal community, which brings with it the power and ability to help individuals and groups address issues in their own lives, and the environment in which they live. Be aware of your power. Attemper it with humanity and humility. Try to make a difference but do it with integrity. Be patient and know that change rarely happens over night. Chart your own path, and don't be afraid to change course. You are never too old to imagine yourself, or your passion. Trust me on this one, you are never too old. Find a cause that you love. Love what you do and do it the best you can, it will nourish your soul. If you are just starting out, find a mentor; someone you respect and trust. If you are experienced, offer to mentor others. Never be anyone but yourself. Relish the journey ahead. Fill your tank with the fuel of commitment. Welcome detours, they sometimes can take you on a scenic path that you didn't know existed. Don't be deterred by adversity, it’s the source of some of life's best lessons. Remember that if you follow your passion, you will never lose your way. Find words that inspire you and put them in a shadow box.”

About the author

Mana Khami is a partner at Harrison Pensa LLP in London, Ontario, and the chair of the OBA ADR Executive Section.

Read Mana’s full article about the event and learn more about The Honourable Mary Jo Nolan’s illustrious career on the OBA Alternative Dispute Resolution Section articles page.