On March 8, 2017, International Women’s Day, former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé sat down with students, professors, and practitioners at McCarthy Tétrault for Pro Bono Students Canada’s annual Toronto volunteer appreciation event. Throughout the evening, she shared insights from her time on the bench, recounting her reputation as a fiery dissenter. “Not everyone has to agree”, she said, stating that it’s important for others to see that there is “another way”. The “other way” L’Heureux-Dubé put forward was often socially progressive for the time. From her dissents in R v Mossop (well before the Same Sex Marriage Reference) and R v Rodriguez (roughly fifteen years before R v Carter) to her stunning social commentary in R v Seaboyer, she utilized what she called “common sense” to advocate for equality for all groups.
During her inspirational presentation, she spoke of many hurdles that she overcame. Beginning as a typist during her time at Université Laval, Claire L’Heureux-Dubé later gained employment as a young lawyer at a working class firm. From there, she rose in the ranks to become a judge on the Quebec Court of Appeal. She recalled to the room a late night phone call from then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who although a Conservative, hoped to appoint her to the Supreme Court. “He wanted to appoint a female judge… well the problem was, I was the only one [at the appellate level] in Quebec”, she recounted, reminding the room that Supreme Court picks used to be drawn only from Courts of Appeal. That night, she struggled with her decision. She called her friend former Supreme Court Justice William McIntyre for advice. He encouraged her but warned, “you won’t be welcome”. Despite that, she accepted the appointment, making her the second ever woman to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada, after Bertha Wilson.
Justice L’Heureux-Dubé often stood up for herself while on the Court. When she grew tired of briefs being handed in the day before a case—leaving her and the other judges no choice but to stay up all night in order to fully prepare—she cheekily asked, “what shall I do with all my lovers?” To this day she retains her brash and at times acerbic sense of wit. “I think I would have been in the dissent in R v Jordan” she stated. In fact, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé happily commented that she reads every decision of the Court and sometimes calls her friend, Justice Rosalie Abella to say, “Rosie, can you believe what they did?” It’s clear that at the age of 89, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé is just as strong a dissident as ever.
PBSC thanks Justice L’Heureux-Dubé for joining us at this year’s Toronto Volunteer Appreciation Event. We also express our sincere appreciation to McCarthy Tétrault — our national law firm partner — for generously hosting this event. In particular, we thank Bryn Gray, Gordon Baird, Barbara Boake and Emily McKinnon for their participation and support.