Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the nomination of Ontario Superior Court of Justice Judge Michelle O’Bonsawin, to the nation’s highest court on Friday. O’Bonsawin, an Abenaki member of the Odanak First Nation, will be the first indigenous justice at the Supreme Court.
This nomination would fill the vacancy to be created by the upcoming retirement of Justice Michael Moldaver in September. Trudeau thanked Justice Moldaver for his service and congratulated him on his distinguished judicial career. Noting that O’Bonsawin is a “widely respected member of Canada’s legal community with a distinguished career,” Trudeau expressed confidence that “she’ll bring invaluable knowledge to our country’s highest court.”
The process to appoint a Supreme Court Justice in Canada begins with a six-week application process. In the current case, this process began on April 4 with a deadline set to May 13. Under a new process implemented in 2016, upon completion of the application phase, a nonpartisan Independent Advisory Board for Supreme Court of Canada Judicial Appointments (IAB) is tasked with reviewing applications and shortlisting three-to-five highly qualified candidates to the prime minister for consideration. After the prime minister nominates a candidate, this candidate will then participate in a hearing before members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. The committees will also hear from the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and the IAB Chairperson on the selection process and the reasons for a specific nomination. In the present case, this would be David Lametti and Wade MacLauchlan, respectively. Post this step, the final appointment comes from the Governor General, upon advice of the prime minister.
This process is noticeably different from that of Canada’s southern neighbor, which does not involve an application process and which often begins with the executive’s (i.e. president’s) nomination. Also noticeably different is the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada has a mandatory retirement age at 75 as opposed to a life term in the US.
O’Bonsawin holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Laurentian University, a Bachelor of Law from the University of Ottawa, a Master of Law from Osgoode Hall Law School, and a doctorate in law from the University of Ottawa. An expert in the areas of mental health, labor and employment law, human rights, and privacy law, O’Bonsawin began her career at the legal services unit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. She has also taught Indigenous law at the University of Ottawa’s Common Law Program and was previously responsible for the Indigenous Relations Program at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group. O’Bonsawin hails from the Francophone town of Hanmer, Ontario and is functionally bilingual in English and French—a requirement to sit as as a justice of the Supreme Court in Canada. She was incidentally also the first Indigenous woman judge to be appointed to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
Post the announcement, the Indigenous Bar Association (IBA) congratulated O’Bonsawin, with IBA President Drew Lafond highlighting that the Court has never reserved a spot for somebody to represent Canada’s indigenous population despite reserving three seats for Quebec judges. Lafond added: “it’s very difficult to have confidence in the ability of the court to pronounce on [issues affecting indigenous peoples] when you don’t have any individuals at the court who spent their lives working in Indigenous laws, customs or traditions…Hopefully with Michelle’s appointment we can begin to change that.”