Michelle O’Bonsawin becomes 1st Indigenous person nominated to Supreme Court of Canada

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday his nomination of Michelle O’Bonsawin to the Supreme Court of Canada.

She will become the first Indigenous person to serve on Canada’s highest court.

O’Bonsawin is Abenaki from Odanak. She is Franco-Ontarian and fluently bilingual, according to a news release announcing the nomination.

She has served as a judge on the Ontario Superior Court of Justice since 2017. O’Bonsawin also holds a PhD in law from the University of Ottawa.

In her application questionnaire, made available by the Department of Justice, O’Bonsawin described how her experience as an Indigenous person in Canada has shaped her life and legal career.

“I believe my experience as a francophone First Nations woman, a parent, a lawyer, a scholar and a judge provide me with the lived understanding and insight into Canada’s diversity because I, and my life experience, are part of that diversity,” she said.

O’Bonsawin also highlighted her interest in mental health issues and spoke of a long-term mission to ensure stigmas surrounding mental health “are limited and hopefully one day eliminated.”

“It is crucial that our legal system recognize and support efforts to sensitize the general public regarding mental illness via their judicial behaviour and understanding as articulated in judgments,” she said.

O’Bonsawin said her most significant contribution to Canadian law and the pursuit of justice “is my effort to assist all involved in the justice and mental health system with a particular emphasis on Indigenous Peoples. I strive for the judiciary to clarify the legal issues in order to have an inclusive and compassionate legal system for First Nations, Inuit and Métis.”

TRC chair says ‘diverse perspectives’ needed on court

Murray Sinclair, the former senator and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, said O’Bonsawin’s deep knowledge of Indigenous issues will give her an important role on the court.

“The court is made stronger, and our decisions are better, when there are diverse perspectives where they are needed most,” Sinclair said in a media statement. “This is especially true as it relates to issues facing Canada’s long journey of reconciliation with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit.”

Sinclair said he advised O’Bonsawin during the application process.

Murray Sinclair said he is excited that O’Bonsawin ‘will be able to shape decisions for years to come.’ (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) also welcomed the nomination and said O’Bonsawin will help to “balance” the court.

“Canada’s top court has always been missing an individual to interpret Canadian laws through an Indigenous lens — but not anymore,” said CAP National Chief Elmer St. Pierre in a media statement.

Trudeau said O’Bonsawin’s nomination was the result of an open, non-partisan selection process. 

“I am confident that Justice O’Bonsawin will bring invaluable knowledge and contributions to our country’s highest court,” he said in a media statement.

O’Bonsawin’s nomination is the second consecutive history-making nomination to the Supreme Court. Last year, Mahmud Jamal became the first person of colour appointed to the court.

O’Bonsawin was the first Indigenous woman to serve at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Ottawa. She was nominated for that position in 2017 by former federal justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.

She also has served as a member of numerous legal and advocacy groups, including the Aboriginal Legal Services of the University of Ottawa Legal Aid Clinic and the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice, and as a partner judge with the Afghanistan Women Judges with the International Association of Women Judges.

O’Bonsawin was born in Hanmer, Ont., a small francophone town north of Sudbury, Ont.

The Prime Minister’s Office said O’Bonsawin is studying Abenaki but does not yet consider herself a fluent speaker.

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