It’s not every day that one gets to rub shoulders with judges of the Supreme Court of Canada. In fact, the closest I had ever been to a Supreme Court judge prior to last week’s Gala dinner at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto was back in 2007 when I visited Ottawa and signed up for a tour of the highest court in the land. While the judges were not sitting at the time, I still remember how exciting it was to be standing in the very court where cases that have shaped Canadian jurisprudence were argued, where landmark decisions were handed down, and where history continues to be made. So, you can imagine how thrilled I was to attend the OBA gala in honour of Justice Rosalie Abella and Justice Mahmud Jamal on May 26, 2022. And what a supreme evening it was, indeed!
As Justice Jamal noted during his keynote address, “Anyone who has attended one of the events honouring Rosie over the past year comes with the unmistakable sense of the tremendous respect and admiration that everybody inside and outside the legal community has for her.”
From a displaced person camp in Stuttgart where she was born in 1954 to the Supreme Court of Canada, Justice Rosalie Abella’s journey to the bench was far from easy or ordinary, yet she rose to every challenge with courage, integrity and unparalleled grace. She was appointed to the Ontario Family Court in 1976 at the age of 29—making her the youngest judge ever appointed in Canada—then to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1996. In 2004, she was selected to serve as a judge of the Supreme Court of Canada, a position she held until she retired in 2021 at the age of 75, thus earning her the title of longest serving judge in Canadian history.
During her legal career, which spanned over 50 years, Justice Abella made invaluable contributions in administrative and constitutional law, human rights, labour law, family law and international law. In her jurisprudence, she has been a fervent champion of the least advantaged members of society, and she has advanced the rights of women, persons with disabilities and underrepresented groups.
According to Justice Jamal, Justice Abella is respected, admired and loved not just for her courage and compassionate towards others, but also for her authenticity.
“Over the last 17 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,” he said. “Rosie is the quintessential authentic thinker. As Canadians, we are and will remain the beneficiaries of her authentic and unapologetic jurisprudence.”
I also made an interesting discovery about Justice Abella that evening. She is not just a brilliant jurist with an illustrious career of public service. She is also quite the standup comedian and she kept us entertained throughout her keynote address. She opened with: “I’ve been asked to give some examples of Justice Jamal’s raucous sense of humour—thank you.” With that, she walked off the podium to a round of applause and heartfelt laughter, made her way to her table, sat down, and waited patiently for the brouhaha to die down. She then got back on stage and remarked, with a mischievous grin on her face, “I am so mean.”
Justice Abella went on to praise Justice Jamal for his advocacy skills as a lawyer appearing before the judges of the Supreme Court of Canada.
“It was like watching an artist with full command of his craft, an artist who loved his rhetorical creations and did his best to persuade the nine of us that we should love it, too, or at least like it, or not hate it,” said Justice Abella of Justice Jamal. “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 sometimes modest. Now that I know him better, I am completely sure that it was because of his British accent.”
Justice Jamal was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1967 to a family originally from India. A few years later, the Jamal family moved to England, then to Edmonton, Alberta in 1981 where Justice Jamal completed high school. Before his appointment to the bench, Justice Jamal practised with Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP for over 23 years in the fields of appellate litigation, constitutional and public law, class actions, and commercial litigation. As his former colleagues at Osler pointed out at the gala, he set a high bar as a lawyer in terms of hard work, dedication and excellence, but he was also very committed to mentorship throughout his career and he had extensive community engagements.
Adopting a more serious tone as her speech progressed, Justice Abella observed of Justice Jamal:
“For him, it wasn’t exactly the straight and predictable line from Kenya to the Supreme Court of Canada. Detours in foreign countries like England and Alberta, degrees from UofT, McGill and Yale, 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.”
Simply put, Justice Abella has a knack for weaving a good punchline into highly engaging anecdotes, and her sense of humour is witty, hilariously impeccable and infectious.
It was so endearing to bear witness to the camaraderie between Justice Abella and Justice Jamal that evening and it helped to humanize them. This was not only evident from the ease with which Justice Abella poked fun at Justice Jamal, but also in Justice Jamal’s own recollections of his encounters with Justice Abella over the years.
“As many others have said, her strongest attributes are warmth and genuineness. She’s always interested in getting to know various individuals. Of course, with Rosie, there are always also the hugs and the kisses. And for some of us who may be more reserved, that can sometimes be very hard to process,” he admitted. “But it didn’t take me long to realize she’s the real deal. She genuinely cares about you and wants you to succeed in all aspects of your life, both personal and professional.”
In the words of Justice Rosie Abella, “Together we, all of us, are Canada. A Canada for the future and a Canada that belongs to everyone.” With that in mind, I join my colleagues and our distinguished guests in thanking the Ontario Bar Association and its sponsors for honouring the great Justice Jamal and the trailblazing Justice Abella, and for allowing me to share in the celebration. This was definitely a night to remember!
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