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Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin visits Queen’s

Managing Editor Kelly Watson reviews the Chief Justice's recent talk at Queen's

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On November 20, 2017, Queen’s Women in the Law Club and the Principal’s Forum hosted “A fireside chat” with Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin. Chief Justice McLachlin is well known as the first female, and longest serving Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. The discussion with McLachlin CJC covered many well-known socio-cultural evolutions happening in Canada: from increasing gender equality, to Trudeau’s “because its 2016” statement, to the Charter, and increasing recognition of Indigenous people. McLachlin CJC reflected on the difference between the legal culture from when she was in practice and how it has changed to the present. She said that there are less barriers to women in law than their used to be. That said, the legal profession is still having difficulties maintaining women in the profession. Firms need to be more flexible to the needs of women who still primarily take on the childrearing role, offering options such as more flexible work schedules, working part-time, or working from home. These types of changes are necessary if we want to achieve greater gender equality in the legal profession.

No more sexual harassment in law?

Chief Justice McLachlin was very modest, conservative, and calculated in her answers, with the exception of one statement which raised some controversy among the audience. She said: “there is no more sexual harassment in law”.  This statement is unfortunately out of touch with reality. In giving McLachlin CJC the benefit of the doubt, I hope she meant this statement in contrast to how it used to be, that there is less sexual harassment in the workplace than there used to be, rather than intending to say that this issue no longer exists at all. Sexual harassment is still very prevalent in the legal workplace, and most commonly experienced by women. To say that this issue no longer exists at all is simply incorrect.

Rise of attention to Indigenous peoples

Chief Justice McLachlin anticipates that Indigenous law will increasingly receive more attention in Canada. She reminded the audience that Indigenous claims intersect with every area of law: from criminal law, to family law, to commercial law. She underlined that good lawyers in all fields need to understand their country by keeping current on the changes surrounding Indigenous people’s rights, and the growing awareness of Indigenous issues through measures like the Truth and Reconciliation Report.

How does the SCC view intervenor applications?

Justice Stratas of the Federal Court of Appeal, a well-known Queens Law graduate, has previously taken issue with intervenor applications, stating that many intervenor applications do not address the legal issue at question in the case. In response, McLachlin CJC said that the role of an intervenor is to help bring perspectives and policy considerations from a certain group to the judges, and to help the judges understand the impact that a decision may have on a certain community. The problem is when the intervenors try to tell the judges how to decide the case, which is unfair. Those applications will be rejected because the SCC must preserve procedural fairness. McLachlin CJC expects that the SCC will continue to accept many applications from interveners.

Who will be the next judicial appointment?

With the Chief Justice McLachlin’s pending retirement scheduled to happen this December 15, 2017, it raises the question: who will be the next judicial appointment? Will the next appointment be female, Indigenous, African-Canadian? If male, then this would make the gender divide on the SCC 3 women to 6 men; however, if McLachlin is replaced by a woman, then the gender divide will remain at a relatively balanced 4 women to 5 men. Since Justin Trudeau is still in power and the Federal government is responsible for Federal judicial appointments, and given his views on having a gender-balanced cabinet, feminists hope that the next appointment is female. Furthermore, given the increasing awareness of the lack of Indigenous representation in the judiciary, and the criticism that the Supreme Court bench lacks diversity, I would love to see a female appointment who also has a culturally diverse background. McLachlin CJC stated that Canadians want greater transparency in judicial appointments, acknowledging that this is one problem with the current judicial appointment system. There is a short-list of candidates that has now been given to the Prime Minister, but there are no confirmations of who has made the list. We know that the selected appointment must come from Western Canada or the North, but rumours surround several potential candidates. Stay tuned…

Advice for law students

Finally, the Chief Justice shared several pearls of wisdom for young law students. She said she wished someone had told her there will be times it will be difficult but just keep plugging along. She said that when she was a young lawyer she did not realize how much lawyers had the ability to contribute to society. She encouraged all young lawyers to give back to their communities more, reminding us that our research, writing and advocacy skills are incredibly empowering and give us the opportunity to greatly assist the public.

My observation is that law students sometimes take our skills for granted. Law students spend so much time with other law students that we begin to assume everyone has the same skills as us, but this is not the case. Law students are objectively much more educated than the general population. The general public can often greatly benefit from the assistance of our skillset. McLachlin CJC said we must acknowledge our privilege – the privilege of being able to study law – and not take it for granted.

Kelly Watson is the Managing Editor of Juris Diction and a current 3L student at Queen’s Law.

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