Trudeau, a self-proclaimed feminist, has redirected Canada’s international assistance program to emphasize gender equality and empowerment for women and girls. A focus on gender and racial diversity has continued in appointments to Canadian government agencies and to the courts for which his government has responsibility, including federal courts and senior courts in the provinces.
Statistics on racial diversity aren’t directly comparable although the Canadian numbers do show three indigenous judges and nine members of visible minorities have been appointed to the bench over the past year. It also notes four newly named judges self-identified as LGBT.
With the appointment to the Supreme Court of Sheilah L. Martin, an Alberta appeals court judge and former law school dean known as an outspoken advocate for women’s and indigenous rights, the nine-member Supreme Court will keep its balance of the sexes, with five male and four female justices. Still to be decided is which of the nine justices will take on the role of chief justice.
“The public expects and deserves to see a bench that looks a little more like Canada,” said Rosemary Cairns Way, law professor at University of Ottawa. “It’s not hard to find meritorious women to appoint to the bench. There are lots of them.”
Yet the decision not to name the first indigenous judge to the high court, particularly in light of Trudeau’s calls for reconciliation with native people to correct historic abuses, led to criticism.
“Of course, we are disappointed not to have a First Nations justice appointee to the Supreme Court of Canada,” said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the leading indigenous group in the country.
Kim Campbell, the former Canadian prime minister who chaired the advisory committee that screened candidates for the Supreme Court position, said she is certain one day there would be an indigenous judge on the court but conceded the pool of qualified candidates was still “small.”
Martin's appointment also highlights other differences with the U. S. Supreme Court. Canadian Supreme Court judges are subject to a mandatory retirement age of 75 in contrast with lifetime appointments in the United States. (McLachlin is retiring nine months early.) Since Canadian judges are usually appointed after a lengthy career — Martin is 60 — the average tenure of judges is briefer and the composition of the high court changes more rapidly.
Although the advisory panel chaired by Campbell, the former prime minister, reviewed applications for the Supreme Court position and came up with a shortlist of three names, the final choice was Trudeau’s. Martin appeared before a parliamentary committee this week and was questioned, but it was more a get-to-know-you session than a formal review process.
Although Supreme Court judges have varying views, the Canadian court tends to be above politics, and it’s often difficult to predict how the views of justices will break, even on contentious issues. Under McLachlin's leadership as chief justice, there has been a push for unanimity on the court.
The court also tends to be collegiate in its deliberations. “It’s always respectful and polite. Very Canadian,” Cairns Way said.