Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 1923, Madame Justice Bertha Wilson attended the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where she obtained her MA in 1944, then went on to obtain a diploma from the Training College for Teachers in Aberdeen.
In 1945, she married the Rev. John Wilson and four years later moved with him to Canada where they have made their home ever since.
In 1955, Justice Wilson bucked tradition by enrolling at Dalhousie University to study law. She earned her degree, became a member of the Bar of Nova Scotia, and of Ontario, and in 1959 she joined the firm of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt with whom she practiced law for 16 years. She was the first woman partner in a major Canadian law firm, the first woman appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal, (in 1975) and the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada (in 1982.)
She made headlines with numerous groundbreaking decisions, including the acceptance of the battered women syndrome as self-defense, the insistence on a woman's right to abortion, and equity in the division of property between common law couples.
"The gravity, indeed the tragedy of domestic violence can hardly be overstated," she wrote in R. v Lavallee, 1990. "Far from protecting women from it, the law historically sanctioned the abuse of women within marriage as an aspect of the husband's ownership of his wife and his "right" to chastise her."
Morgentaler v. R, a 1988 case, revolved around the right of women to seek abortions on their own at abortion clinics rather than in government-approved procedures at government-approved hospitals. In determining whether to hear the case on appeal, her colleagues on the Supreme Court ruled on procedural and administrative matters, but Justice Wilson went to the heart of the case, concluding that the Charter "guarantees to every individual a degree of personal autonomy over important decisions intimately affecting his or her private life" and concluding that a woman's decision to terminate her own pregnancy is one such decision.
Although she is often cited as a role model for women, particularly in the professions, she has resisted being typecast as a feminist. And, despite her general support of so-called "women's issues," she has said she considers her most important work to have been with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples" and stressed her commitment to equality for all members of society.
Justice Wilson retired in 1990.