Karen Weiler receives honorary doctorate, inspires a new generation of grads

During the first ceremony for York University’s Spring Convocation, graduands of the Faculty of Health’s psychology program heard words of inspiration from Justice Karen Weiler, one of the University’s most distinguished alumni.

The event, held Friday, June 16, recognized Weiler’s transformative work in law with an honorary doctor of laws. One of the most eminent judges in Canada, Weiler (LLB ’67, LLM ’74) has dedicated her career to improving access to justice for litigants in need and combating societal discrimination. She is a double graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School and was first appointed to the former District Court of Ontario in 1980 at the age of 35, making her the youngest person ever to have been appointed to the federal judiciary.

Karen Weiler and Chancellor Greg Sorbara

During her speech, she remarked that she first graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School 50 years ago, and posed to graduands, “You’re probably asking yourself, ‘What does someone who graduated 50 years ago have to tell me that’s relevant to my life today?’ ”

Weiler said it took some soul searching to realize there were three lessons in life that brought her to this moment, and she shared her valuable insight with students and their guests.

“The first is don’t let others define who you are, or what your career will be – you, and no one else, should define what you can be,” she said, drawing from her personal experience in 1967 after being one of six women to graduate with a law degree in a class of 160.

She recalled the challenges of being a woman in the late ’60s and trying to find an articling job that would allow being called to the bar – “an uncertain career choice for a woman” at the time. A career so uncertain that when she did take a position in 1967 in Thunder Bay, Ont., she was the only woman practising law in all of Northern Ontario, which made headlines in the Fort Williams Daily Times-Journal.

“The novelty of a woman lawyer in the north opened up an unforeseen opportunity for me,” she said. Men in the process of separating from their wives chose Weiler to represent them because they thought it would be to their advantage to have a woman acting for them. Women started to call her because they felt more comfortable talking about matrimonial issues with a woman.

“I decided to accept their cases, with the result that I expanded into a new area of practice – family law,” she said.

Her second life lesson came from that decision, she said, and she urged grads to “use your degree to question and to challenge the way things are, and to help bring about change.”

Left to right: Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Karen Weiler, President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri

She saw an opportunity in family law and took on her firm’s volunteer legal aid work, a great deal of which was related to Section 8 of the Training School Act. This section of the law, she explained, allowed any person in a position of authority to send a child deemed “unmanageable” to training school – sometimes as far as 900 miles away from his or her family.

“I used to fight those applications like hell, but I usually lost,” she said. “I wanted to see that law repealed.”

Not long after, she returned to Osgoode Hall Law School to get her master of laws degree, and with the help of a study by government researchers who shared her concerns, she argued strongly for repeal of Section 8. In 1975, the Ontario legislature voted to repeal.

“Today these children are more appropriately served by Child & Family Services,” she said. “My refusal to be limited by others’ conceptions of what I could do, and my willingness to take on areas in which others weren’t interested, but which I felt passionate about, led to the opportunity to work to make a difference.”

The value of your degree, she told grads, is that it trains you in a way of thinking that is adaptable to different circumstances and enables you to challenge the way things are, as well as to help bring about change.

Lesson number three, Weiler continued, is to be willing to continue to learn.

After practising law for 11 years, she became a judge – what most would consider the pinnacle of a legal career. But for Weiler, it was just the beginning. Appointed to the trial court in Ontario, and unhappy with being assigned a “disproportionate share of procedural motions,” she resolved to change her situation.

Weiler decided to return to Osgoode Hall Law School in the part-time, two-year master’s program in criminal law. She juggled a full caseload, family commitments and her studies.

“In the 50 years since I graduated from law school, the law hasn’t stopped evolving and I haven’t stopped learning,” she said. “Preparing these remarks about the three lessons in life I’ve shared with you today made me realize that the opportunities I was fortunate enough to receive arose in large measure out of the challenges I faced, and the confidence that with the support of my family, these challenges could be overcome.”

In her closing remarks, Weiler reminded graduands to continue to grow and expand their intellectual reach.

“Good luck on your climb,” she said.