She grew up in a family of modest means, babysitting and working in the fast-food industry to pay for school.
As a young researcher and professor in the mid-1980s, she faced criticism for organizing a conference about judges and equality issues from those who did not think further education on the issue was necessary. With the support of the chief justice of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, she went ahead anyway.
Later, she was one of the lawyers who helped craft what would become the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which she calls “among the most meaningful and challenging work of my career.” In 2016, she granted Canada’s first judicially authorized assisted death.
Now, Justice Sheilah Martin, 60, is set to become the country’s newest Supreme Court judge, and its second from Alberta. She will fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin on Dec. 15. Her nomination will keep the court at five men and four women.
In announcing Justice Martin’s nomination to the top court on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said 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.
Mr. Trudeau called her “an extraordinary jurist” with a wealth of experience across the country, who would be “a great voice in the Supreme Court.”
Justice Martin, who is bilingual, is described by friends and colleagues as hard-working, empathetic, smart and down-to-earth, and concerned, as ever, with equality and human rights.
“You can tick off all the boxes with Sheilah Martin,” said her friend of three decades, University of Calgary law professor Kathleen Mahoney.
“I think she’ll bring a breath of fresh air to the court, and an energy and vitality that will really be of assistance.”
Justice Martin will participate in a question-and-answer session moderated by a law professor with Parliamentarians from all parties next Tuesday.
The announcement was not met with equal enthusiasm from those who hoped to see the country’s first Indigenous judge on the top court.
“Of course, we are disappointed not to have a First Nations justice appointee to the Supreme Court of Canada,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who also congratulated Justice Martin, said in a statement.
“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.”
At least one Indigenous potential candidate – University of Victoria law professor John Borrows – was viewed as a contender, and had been studying French. British Columbia’s former representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, was also seen as a possibility. She is bilingual. But a source told The Globe and Mail Ms. Turpel-Lafond was not on the shortlist of three to five candidates an independent committee gave to the Prime Minister.
Vanessa MacDonnell, an associate law professor at the University of Ottawa, said there is no doubt Justice Martin is extremely qualified for the position. But she said an Indigenous judge would have been more significant.
“It would have really set the tone, I think, for the government’s overall reconciliation agenda,” she said.
Indigenous issues, however, have been front and centre in Justice Martin’s career.
First appointed as a judge in 2005, Justice Martin served on the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta in Calgary until June, 2016, when she was appointed as a judge of the Courts of Appeal of Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Before she was appointed to the bench, Justice Martin worked alongside former AFN national chief Phil Fontaine and others to help redress the harms caused to tens of thousands of children at residential schools.
The experience, she said, had a profound effect.
“Even though I had studied equality rights, I was confronted by how privilege had insulated me from being fully aware of what had truly happened in residential schools,” Justice Martin said in response to a questionnaire for Supreme Court applicants released on Wednesday.
“This experience reinforced in me the recognition that everyone has a personal responsibility to learn about the lives of others.”
She was also part of a team of lawyers who sought compensation for David Milgaard, who was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of Saskatchewan nursing aide Gail Miller. Justice Martin’s late husband, lawyer Hersh Wolch, was also known for his tireless advocacy on behalf of wrongfully convicted Canadians, including Mr. Milgaard. Mr. Wolch died of a heart attack in July at the age of 77. The two had seven children, combined, from previous relationships.
Justice Martin was born and raised in Montreal.
“I came from a loving family of modest means and saw the daily stress of trying to make ends meet,” she said. “From an early age, I understood that it was up to me to work hard to achieve my goals.”
She was trained in both civil and common law before moving to Alberta to pursue work as an educator, lawyer and judge. From 1991 to 1996, she was acting dean and then dean of the University of Calgary’s faculty of law.
Chief Justice Mary Moreau of the Court of Queen’s Bench said Justice Martin is a collegial judge who seeks points of consensus with her colleagues. “She had a very strong background in many areas of the law, but her particular focus was equality issues,” Chief Justice Moreau said.
“That interest and commitment rippled through her judicial career as a trial judge.”
She has advocated on behalf of women’s issues throughout her academic and legal career. In 2016, she had a role in ordering two new trials in sexual-assault cases, citing stereotypes and unfair assumptions about victims.
In her questionnaire, Justice Martin said her most significant contribution to law has been education, “richly defined.”
“My guiding desire has been to use what I have learned to help others gain a greater understanding of the law: its purpose, role and promise.”
The Globe and Mail, November 29, 2017