Justice Abella Cites Work Undone with Indigenous Peoples, Minorities and the Poor

By Joseph Mathieu
Photos by Mike Pinder

“Integration based on difference, equality based on inclusion despite difference, and compassion based on respect.”

These principles, says Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella, form the moral core of Canada’s national values.

“That approach, our respect for differences, is why Canada is the most successful practitioner of multiculturalism in the world,” Abella said in a speech at Carleton University on Dec. 7, 2017. “Where for others assimilation is a social goal, for us it represents the inequitable obliteration of identities.”

Her speech, Defining Equality: Why Identity Matters, was delivered on the last day of Canada’s Supreme Court sittings for 2017. Hosted by the Zelikovitz Centre for Jewish Studies, close to 200 people attended the campus event with the first Jewish woman to be appointed to Canada’s highest court. Her exploration of Canadian morals was a deep dive into the country’s history with human rights and integration.

The contrasts between the American and Canadian philosophies illustrated her point. Individualism at the core of the American justice system promotes assimilation, whereas  Canada tends to appreciate the right to integrate based on differences.

Lawmakers around the world were shaken out of a complacency by the abuses of the Second World War, said Abella. Modern human rights were developed to confront mass discrimination and these were extended to women, Indigenous people, persons with disabilities and those with different linguistic and sexual preferences.

“I accept that we have lots of work left to do,” she said. “We’re far from resolving the consequences of our frequently shameful and misguided treatment of Indigenous people. We have yet to figure out how to fix the unconscionable social, economic, political and psychological disequilibrium created by poverty. And there are still too many members of racial and religious minorities waiting for the rhetoric of equality to materialize into their reality.”

Abella was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2004 by then prime minister Paul Martin. In 2002, she was presented with the Golden Jubilee Medal to celebrate devotion to public life. Abella has written four books and was the first Canadian woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale Law School.

She has found literature to be a good tutor in understanding the world from other people’s perspectives. She quoted American writer Ralph Ellison in the preface to his 1952 novel Invisible Man: “A novel could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat, as we try to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal.”

The experiences of fictional protagonists in literature portray a desire to belong, but also a plea for integration. The young black idealist in Invisible Man, grandson of slaves, and the Jewish sergeant in Philip Roth’s short story Defender of the Faith hope for respect based on differences and for self-respect based on identity.

They symbolized pleas for equality, the essence of human rights.

“Education is critical,” she said of building a more inclusive society. “And while attitudes may open the doors, only behaviour lets people in.’’