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Honorary degree citation - Bertha Wilson*

By: Susan Hoecker-Drysdale, November 1991

Mr. Chancellor, I am honoured to present to you, The Honourable Madame Justice Bertha Wilson, first woman Justice to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada. Appointed on March 4, 1982, Justice Wilson served on the highest body of this country for nine years with great distinction. Her record on the Supreme Court expresses her insistence on the priority of the substance and spirit over the form and letter of the law.

A native of Scotland, Bertha Wilson received a Master of Arts degree from the University of Aberdeen and completed postgraduate work in teacher training. In 1949 she immigrated to Ontario with her husband, the Reverend John Wilson, and in 1955, following their move to Halifax, Madame Wilson, at the age of 31, enrolled in the Faculty of Law at Dalhousie University. She was called to the Bar in 1957. Later, in Toronto, Bertha Wilson joined the Law Firm of Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt, where, after 10 years, she became the firm's first woman partner. She was appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1973, and in 1975 Bertha Wilson became the first woman justice on the Ontario Court of Appeal. In 1984 she was appointed to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Au cours de sa remarquable carrière, Madame la juge Wilson a fait partie du Conseil ontarien et du Conseil national de l'Association du Barreau canadien ainsi que du conseil d'administration de plusieurs universités et établissements. Elle s'est également vu attribuer nombre de diplômes honorifiques. En outre, elle vient d'être nommée membre de la Société royale du Canada.

Madame Justice Wilson established a reputation early in her career as a "lawyer's lawyer", a skilled researcher and reader of the law. Understanding the law to be an instrument of change, she has a strong record of defending human rights in Canada, and the entitlement of women and immigrants, in particular, to equity, fairness and due process.

As a Supreme Court Justice, Bertha Wilson was exemplary in her concern for the protection of the individual under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and for the legal assurance of the security of the person. Justice Wilson has sensitized her profession and society at large to the ramifications of the law for women and the need to address the "gender-based myths, biases and stereotypes" in the law and in the attitudes of those who must render it.

Although Justice Wilson announced a year ago her plans to retire from the Supreme Court in order to have the time to think and read beyond the confines of the law, she has agreed to head a task force of the Canadian Bar Association to examine the obstacles faced by women lawyers and to explore ways to improve their status within the profession. She is a member of the recently formed Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and is currently a scholar-in-residence at the University of Ottawa.

By her incisive, courageous and compassionate conduct in her profession, Justice Wilson has promoted the realization of justice and equality in Canada.

Mr. Chancellor, it is a privilege indeed to present to you, on behalf of the Senate and by the authority of the Board of Governors, The Honourable Madame Justice Bertha Wilson, that you may confer on her the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

* deceased

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