Bertha Wilson, first female justice of the Supreme Court of Canada

Bertha Wilson, the first female justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, has died following a prolonged illness. Wilson died of Alzheimer’s disease, on Saturday, April 28, at an Ottawa retirement home. She was 83.

Wilson broke ground in 1975 as the first woman appointed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario, and again in 1982 when she became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. She retired from the court in 1991.

Wilson forged a reputation as a champion of the underdog, a scholarly jurist and a dedicated proponent of fair play for all. She is lauded for landmark decisions changing the face of Canadian law and society. Although she was often cited as a role model for women, particularly in the professions, she resisted being typecast as a feminist.

Right: Bertha Wilson, photograph by Michael Bedford, courtesy of the Supreme Court of Canada Collection

In 1986, as part of its spring convocation ceremonies, York University honoured Wilson with an honorary doctor of laws degree. A passionate advocate for social justice, Wilson was also the recipient of many awards including the 2003 Justice Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation.

Wilson was described by her former colleagues as a legal trailblazer, someone with a sense of humour. An original thinker, she was credited for fundamentally changing the Supreme Court when she joined the all-male bastion. She made headlines with numerous groundbreaking decisions, including the acceptance of the battered women syndrome as self-defence, the insistence on a woman’s right to abortion and equity in the division of property between common law couples.

"Bertha Wilson was known for her generosity of spirit and originality of thought. She was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada the same year the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted," said Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, on behalf of the members of the Supreme Court of Canada. "As a member of this court, she was a pioneer in charter jurisprudence and made an outstanding contribution to the administration of justice. She will be sorely missed by all who were privileged to know her."

Wilson received her early training in Scotland, attending the University of Aberdeen. She graduated in 1944 and continued her education at the Training College for Teachers in Aberdeen, obtaining her diploma in 1945. She married the Reverend John Wilson in December 1945 and they emigrated to Canada in 1949. In 1955, she enrolled at Dalhousie University to study law, and in 1957 Wilson completed her LLB and was called to the bar of Nova Scotia. In 1959 she was called to the bar of Ontario. She practiced law in Toronto with Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt for 17 years.

A memorial service will be held at 2pm on Tuesday, May 8, at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, at Wellington and Kent Streets in Ottawa.