Madame Justice Bertha Wilson's (1923-2007) monumental judicial career didn’t just earned her a reputation as a supporter of the under-represented — it helped propel Canada forward at a decisive time in the country’s history.
But back in 1954, that career was just getting underway. She walked through the doors of Dalhousie School of Law as a mature student, one who was married to a clergyman and had saved her pay cheques as a doctor's receptionist to afford her tuition.
But from the first day of class, she said she soaked up legal studies “like a sponge.” She cultivated an interest in legal theory, graduated at the top of her class and became the first female lawyer at Toronto law firm Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt. That was the first of many firsts for Wilson, culminating in 1982 when she became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
She joined the court at a pivotal time in Canadian history – less than a month before the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The country's opinions on crucial and contentious topics were being formed, and Madame Wilson was one of few in a position to have a direct impact on the nation's laws.
Many of her decisions changed the lives of women in Canada. She ruled in favour of a woman's constitutional right to choice on abortion, and authored a decision which allowed for battered wife syndrome as legal defence. During nine years on the country's highest court, she never feared taking a dissenting view and became seen widely — and sometimes critically — as a champion for minorities..
“It was a great treat to read her judgments,” said the Right Honourable Brian Dickson, former Chief Justice of Canada. “With each one I felt my heart and mind expand. She writes with a simplicity, grace, rationality and humanity that may even lead one to underestimate the complexity of her thoughts.”
Madame Wilson retired at 67. She was appointed a Commissioner of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, made a Companion of the Order of Canada, and earned 29 honourary degrees — including one from Dalhousie — before her death in 2007.
“We cherish the free and open society which has been built here with its rich mosaic of creeds, cultures and customs,” Madame Wilson proclaimed at her swearing in to the Supreme Court. Even putting aside her impressive legacy breaking through judicial glass ceilings, Madame Wilson’s progressive attitude and contribution toward a fair and just Canada continues to resonate across our country today.