Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has nominated former law dean and current judge Sheilah Martin to the Supreme Court, dashing hopes from Indigenous leaders that someone from their community would be offered the open seat on Canada’s highest court.
A Montreal native, trained in civil and common law, Martin would take the spot of retiring Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, the longest serving Chief Justice in Canada’s history. Martin currently serves as a judge on the Courts of Appeal of Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
“Throughout her thirty-year career, she has maintained a strong focus on education, equality rights and increasing the number of under-represented groups in law schools and the legal profession, including Indigenous People,” said the Prime Minister’s Office in a statement on Wednesday, announcing the appointment.
Of course we are disappointed not to have a First Nations justice appointee to the Supreme Court of Canada today
Martin is a former law dean at the University of Calgary and is known for her work on women’s issues, having worked extensively with the advocacy group Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund.
But some see her appointment as a missed opportunity.
“Of course we are disappointed not to have a First Nations justice appointee to the Supreme Court of Canada today,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said in a statement. “The task of recognizing First Nations legal traditions and applying First Nations law faces all Supreme Court justices.
“We look forward to continuing appointments of First Nations lawyers to more judicial positions and to the promotion of those already on the bench to more senior levels.”
University of Victoria law professor John Borrows, a member of the Chippewa Nawash First Nation of Ontario, and Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Saskatchewan’s first Indigenous female judge, were seen by legal insiders as top contenders for the job.
Given the number of cases that go to the Supreme Court involving questions of Indigenous rights, some believed Indigenous representation on the bench was crucial.
Canada is juridically pluralistic state. It draws upon many sources of law to maintain order throughout the land, and I think it’s important to identify that Indigenous people have been continuously denied these channels
“We’re deeply, profoundly disappointed,” Brooks Arcand-Paul of the Indigenous Bar Association told VICE News regarding the decision not to appoint an Indigenous justice to the bench, although he acknowledged Martin’s previous work on Indigenous issues, including the Indian Residential School settlement.
“After years of our legal traditions surviving in spite attempts to banish, assimilate, and suppress, we’ve maintained our traditions,” he said. “Canada is juridically pluralistic state. It draws upon many sources of law to maintain order throughout the land, and I think it’s important to identify that Indigenous people have been continuously denied these channels. By continuing to exacerbate that, I think the PM is sending a message that is contrary to what he’s saying in his media releases.”
Trudeau, who made gender parity on the court a priority, also made being functionally bilingual a requirement, which some critics believed would stand in the way of making a place for an Indigenous judge on the top court.
Martin’s appointment makes her the second judge on the Supreme Court from Alberta.
Next Monday, the House of Commons justice committee will hear from Justice Minister Jody Wilson Raybould and Kim Campbell, chair of an independent advisory board for Supreme Court nominations, on the reasons behind Martin’s appointment.
The following day, they along with the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee, and representatives with Bloc Quebecois and Green Party, will take part a question-and-answer session with Martin.