An Inspired and Inspiring Woman

by julia.hanigsberg | November 4th, 2010

Earlier this fall it was my great privilege to deliver the citation for Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, when Ryerson University awarded her an Honorary Degree at Fall Convocation.

In introducing a person as esteemed and distinguished as Madam Chief Justice McLachlin, I had my choice of incredible qualities and accomplishments from which to choose and yet in preparing my speech, I kept coming back to the fact that she is Canada’s first FEMALE Chief Justice and the impact of having a woman at the helm of our highest court has had on me. I hesitated to focus on Chief Justice McLachlin’s gender in speaking at convocation. After all, she represents much more, including an acute legal mind with an astonishingly prodigious amount of writing and an ability to  administer the Supreme Court with the effectiveness and efficiency of, arguably, no other Chief Justice in our history—a true judicial CEO.

“You can’t give up and you can’t take our progress for granted.”

My hesitation to focus on the importance of the fact that our honorary doctorate is a woman evaporated when I read the call to action of none other than Phyllis Yaffe, the Chair of Ryerson’s Board of Governors in the Globe and Mail the week before. In writing about the accomplishments of women in leadership and how far we still have to go she charged us as follows: “You can’t give up and you can’t take our progress for granted.” She is, of course, absolutely correct.

In the spirit of not taking progress for granted I’ll share with you that when I entered law school, having a woman on the Supreme Court of Canada was still a novelty. A new era had dawned for students like me. Madam Justice Bertha Wilson, the first woman member of the Supreme Court, was only five years into her term. I was finishing my second year of law school when Chief Justice McLachlin was appointed in 1989—our 3rd female justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Today, our students are all accustomed to having women on our Supreme Court. Many of them have known nothing else. And certainly we would expect nothing less in 2010.

Chief Justice McLachlin is a vocal advocate for greater equality for women in the legal profession and has not shied away from challenging the “old boys club” commenting: “Human beings have a tendency to see merit only in those who exhibit the same qualities that they possess, so psychologists tell us. Senior lawyers are no exception, so when they look for merit they tend to look for someone like themselves.”

In recent months I’ve met women who have both found the typical lawyer’s career to challenge their abilities to make work and life fit. One story is from 20 years ago and at the time the Law Society wouldn’t permit part-time articling (a required apprenticeship) to accommodate a woman with a new baby. Now, not surprisingly, the Law Society does make such accommodations. But, the legal profession, like other professions, is still challenged to find ways to make work and life fit. And young mothers don’t always find that traditional law firms can allow them the flexibility they need to feel success in all parts of their lives. Interestingly, more and more young fathers feel this challenge acutely too.

 “She dared to use the “f” word”

When Chief Justice McLachlin spoke, she dared to use the “f” word. Yes, she described herself and the other members of the Supreme Court as “feminists”! Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin is an exceptional role model for ALL our students.  I was proud to welcome her into the Ryerson family. She is now not only the Chief Justice of Canada’s highest court, she is one of us.

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