As a little girl, Michelle O’Bonsavin knew she wanted to be a lawyer. She was told in high school that maybe law wasn’t right for a French-speaking girl from Northern Ontario. Okay, just look at me, she thought.
Three decades later, Ms O’Bonsavine will become the first Indigenous judge to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada in nearly 150 years.
Ms O’Bonsavine told the story of her childhood ambitions during a two-hour hearing in Ottawa on Wednesday, where she mixed the personal – as a French-Ontarian mother and Abenaki Odanak First Nation – with the professional.
Opinion: Michelle O’Bonsavine’s appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada is good for Canadians
“I hope to be described as a well-trained judge who listens carefully, empathizes and makes clear and firm judgments,” he said. Ms. O’Bonsavine, speaking French, as she often did during hearings.
Parliamentarians from both the Senate and the House of Representatives questioned Ms. O’Bonsavin during the afternoon session.
Ms O’Bonsavine is to replace Judge Michael Moldaver, who is resigning on September 1 after 11 years in office. (Later this year, Mr. Moldaver will turn 75, the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices.) That means Ms. O’Bonsavine, 48, could serve on the court for almost three decades.
Ms. O’Bonsavine’s nomination began with the Independent Advisory Board for the Appointments of Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada, which consisted of eight non-partisan members who shortlisted candidates for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s consideration. Last week, Mr. Trudeau announced the nomination of Ms. O’Bonsavine.
Answering questions on Wednesday, Ms. O’Bonsavin appeared approachable and approachable, drawing laughter at times. She talked about her journey as a lawyer, her 2017 appointment to the Ontario Supreme Court in Ottawa, and her doctoral work at the University of Ottawa.
Ms. O’Bonsavin described working as legal counsel for the Canada Post and later as legal counsel for the Royal Ottawa Health Group, which deals with mental health issues. In a questionnaire attached to her application, she said she had appeared before various boards and courts on mental health issues, an experience that Ms O’Bonsavin described as something “different” she could bring to the Supreme Court.
Naomi Sayers, an indigenous feminist and mental health lawyer, described it as a “highly specialized field” that intersects with criminal law, constitutional law, and administrative law. This area includes individuals who are “hyper-marginalized and vulnerable,” she said, and includes those who have not been found criminally responsible, as well as those who are held in psychiatric hospitals but not as a result of a crime.
“Principles regarding arrest/detention, the right to a lawyer during arrest/arrest, the interests of liberty and justice—and more—all affect mental health law,” Ms. Sayers said in an email.
Last December, Ms. O’Bonsavin successfully completed her Ph.D. thesis, which she said focused on the possible use of Gladew’s principles in forensic psychiatry. (The Gladwet Principles require judges to take into account the background of an indigenous defendant when sentencing.)
Asked by Conservative MP Kerry-Lynn Findlay why her dissertation was embargoed and whether it was unusual, Ms O’Bonsavine replied that it was unusual, but only because “as far as I understand, there are not many judges on actually going through the PhD process while they’re still sittin’ [as a judge]”.
Ms Findley’s question was one of the few focused queries on Wednesday, with MPs mostly praising Ms O’Bonsavin’s nomination and talking about its historic nature. At one point, Liberal MP Jaime Battiste, who is the country’s first mikmo MP, asked the judge if she would share the indigenous teachings that shaped her.
“I think you have to be humble,” she said. “No matter where we are in society, no matter how far we have come, we must always remember where we come from.”
Ms. O’Bonsavin also mentioned honesty, adding, “I’m a person who tells it like it is.” She showed this candor when she recounted a case in which she heard a lawyer call her “our Pocahontas from the north” in court. Ms O’Bonsavin said she entered the comment on the court record and then discussed at home the importance of discussing discriminatory comments with her sons.
Ms. O’Bonsavine grew up in Hanmer, Ontario, a small French-speaking town about 25 miles north of Sudbury, where her father was a machinist and her mother a teacher. She is now married with two sons and says they have “three dogs, … eight chickens and a gecko named Lizzie.”
In a short closing statement, repeated in Abenaki, English and French by Ms. O’Bonsavin, the judge said: “I am grateful to my ancestors for giving me wisdom today. I thank everyone who took the time to listen to me.”
Earlier in the day, Federal Attorney General David Lametti and Wade MacLoughlan, chairman of the Independent Advisory Council, answered questions from the House Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights about Ms. O’Bonsavine’s nomination and appointment process.
Mr. Lametti has repeatedly spoken about the importance of trust, noting that the current nomination process was created in 2016 to avoid “something that happens from time to time south of the border where it becomes hyper-political and hyper-partisan in terms of nomination. “.
During the morning session, Mr. Battista became emotional for a moment and paused to take a sip of water, asking the Attorney General about the significance of the moment.
“I understand that this is a historic moment,” Mr. Lametti replied. “It’s extremely important that indigenous peoples can see themselves in, frankly, colonial institutions.”
Conservative MPs Larry Brock and Ms Findlay questioned whether Ms O’Bonsavine’s expertise in criminal law was equivalent to that of Mr Moldaver, who is considered an expert in the field. Mr Lametti said that Ms O’Bonsavine does have significant criminal experience, but also stressed that it is the “full responsibility” of the court, and not just one judge, to have the experience he already has. .
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