BORN: Kirkcaldy, Scotland • 18 September 1923
There is a story about Bertha Wilson that has been told so many times around Canadian law schools that it’s the stuff of legend. It was 1954 and the thirty-one-year-old, married wife of a Presbyterian minister was chatting with the dean of the Dalhousie University law school about entering the undergraduate law program.
It was a brief conversation. “Madam, we have no room here for dilettantes,” the dean told Mrs Wilson. “Why don’t you just go home and take up crocheting?”
She ignored the advice, and it was a happy thing: years later, Wilson would be regarded as one of Canada’s most distinguished jurists. For that, and also for carving out a place for other Canadian women in that most male of professions, she demands a promi¬ nent place on this list.
It is a long way from the Scottish Lowlands to the Supreme Court of Canada, and for Bertha Wilson it was a remarkable journey. In 1949, newly married, university educated, but with no apparent intention of doing anything but be a minister’s wife, Wilson emigrated with her husband to the Ottawa Valley.
She worked at a collection of odd jobs and aided in her husband’s ministry. Law school, by 1954, was an opportunity to further her education; actually prac¬ tising law was a vague and distant goal at best.
She forced her way into Dalhousie over the dean’s objections and graduated with honours in 1957. But things didn’t get any easier. After dutifully following her husband to a new posting in Toronto, she was lucky to land a job with Osier, Hoskin & Harcourt, a blue-blood Bay Street firm.
Wilson soon demonstrated a first-rate capacity for legal work, and her bosses were impressed. But the only woman lawyer in the firm was not introduced to many clients. Instead, she was consigned to the background, preparing briefs and arguments for other lawyers.
Wilson made the best of her ghettoization, and it soon became apparent that the firm could not do without her. Within a few years she had emerged as the quintessential “lawyer’s lawyer”—paid to give advice to other lawyers in the firm. She was made a partner in 1968 and given the title “research director.”
Outside her firm, not many lawyers had heard of Bertha Wilson, but there were persistent rumours swirling in the Toronto legal community that Osiers had a secret legal weapon: a mysterious woman who was the brain behind its most important briefs.
Wilson stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight in 1975, when she was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal. She was the first woman to scale such judicial heights in the province and, like most women entering a previously all-male preserve, she had not only to be brave but also to be good.
She soon proved she was both. Wilson earned a reputation among her peers as someone who knew the law intimately but was prepared to make sensitive, caring judgments. The friendly, cheerful judge—liked by almost everyone—was also not afraid to present a women’s point of view in her decisions, even when doing so provoked sharp criticism from her colleagues on the bench.
For this Wilson was noticed, and she was a natural choice as the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in March 1982. Her presence alone proved that justice would never quite be the same in Canada, but she was much more than a token: Wilson found her judicial voice on the top court.
More than any other judge, Wilson used the new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a powerful tool to strike down laws that trampled individual rights. Often, she found herself on the losing side of split decisions, as more cautious members of the court were reluctant to upset the centuries-old tradition of allowing Parliament to do what¬ ever it wanted.
Her biggest triumph came in 1988, when her decision in R. v. Morgentaler set off a legal earthquake that is still reverberating in courts around the country. Wilson joined the majority in striking down Canada’s abortion law, but by making an overtly feminist argument, she established a key precedent.
Wilson retired from the bench in 1991. With the odds stacked against her, she had reached the very pinnacle of her profession. It was a profession that had finally made room for women and women’s perspectives—and for that, Bertha Wilson could take her fair share of the credit.