Bertha Wilson

Bertha Wrenham Wilson CC FRSC (September 18, 1923 – April 28, 2007) was a Canadian jurist and the first female Puisne Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Before her ascension to Canada's highest court, Wilson was also the first female associate and partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt and the first woman appointed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. During her time at Osler, Wilson created the first in-firm research department in the Canadian legal industry.

Bertha Wilson
Puisne Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada
In office
March 4, 1982  January 4, 1991
Nominated byPierre Trudeau
Preceded byRonald Martland
Succeeded byFrank Iacobucci
Personal details
Bertha Wernham

September 18, 1923
Kirkcaldy, Scotland, U.K.
DiedApril 28, 2007(2007-04-28) (aged 83)
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
John Wilson (m. 1945)
Alma materDalhousie Law School

Early life

Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland,[1] the daughter of Archibald Wernham and Christina Noble, she received a Master of Arts degree in philosophy from University of Aberdeen in 1944. In 1949, Wilson emigrated to Canada with her husband John Wilson, a Presbyterian minister, whom she had married in 1945.[1] They settled in Renfrew, Ontario where her husband became the United Church minister. Three years later, in 1952, her husband became a naval chaplain during the Korean War and she worked as a dental receptionist in Ottawa. In 1954, her husband was posted to Halifax, Nova Scotia and they both moved.[2]

Professional career

Wilson received a Bachelor of Laws degree from Dalhousie University, where she finished in the top ten of her class in all three years. She applied for and was accepted into a Master of Laws program at Harvard Law School, but chose not to attend.[3] She was called to the Nova Scotia Bar in 1957.

Wilson moved to Toronto and joined Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt in 1958, a year before she was called to the Ontario bar and became the firm's first female associate. In 1968, she became Osler's first female partner. She founded the research department at Osler, which was the first of its kind in Canada and became a model for other research departments.[4]

She was the first woman appointed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario in 1975. In 1982, she became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, on the advice of Pierre Trudeau. Wilson retired from the court in 1991 and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada that same year.

Wilson's Supreme Court rulings include: R. v. Morgentaler in 1988 (abortion procedures), R. v Lavallée in 1990 (battered-wife syndrome as self-defence), Operation Dismantle v. The Queen in 1985 (judicial review), the minority decision in R. v. Stevens (1988) which was adopted later in R. v. Hess; R. v. Nguyen in 1990 (mens rea and statutory rape), Kosmopolous v. Constitution Insurance Co. of Canada (piercing "corporate veil"), the dissenting opinion in McKinney v. University of Guelph in 1990 (mandatory retirement), Andrews v. Law Society of British Columbia in 1989 (equality rights test), and Sobeys Stores v. Yeomans and Labour Standards Tribunal (NS) in 1989 (interpretative authority of tribunals), among many other foundational cases interpreting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that was enacted the year she was appointed to the Supreme Court.

From 1991 to 1996, she was a Commissioner of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Bertha Wilson gave a controversial and much-discussed speech about the role and influence of women in legal professions and the judiciary titled "Will Women Judges Really Make a Difference?"[5]

Wilson died in an Ottawa retirement home on April 28, 2007 of an unspecified "prolonged illness"[6] which some sources claim was Alzheimer's disease.[7]

See also


  1. Stoddart, Jennifer (June 5, 2007). "Bertha Wilson". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 20, 2018.
  2. Women in Law: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook. Page 339
  3. Fernandez, Angela; Tice, Beatrice (2009). "Bertha Wilson's Practice Years (1958-75): Establishing a Research Practice and Founding a Research Department in Canada". In Brooks, Kim (ed.). Justice Bertha Wilson: One Woman's Difference (PDF). University of British Columbia Press. pp. 15–38. ISBN 978-0-7748-1732-5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-11-22. Retrieved 2016-11-21.
  4. Fernandez & Tice 2009, p. 16.
  6. Supreme Court of Canada press release announcing Bertha Wilson's death, April 30th, 2007 Archived May 31, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  7. Globe & Mail obituary, April 30th, 2007
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