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2003 Justice Prize

Rosalie Silberman Abella

Prior to her appointment to the Ontario court of Appeals in 1992, Madame Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella was a judge on the Ontario Family Court. She has co-authored four books and written more than 70 articles on legal issues, taught advanced law courses at leading law schools, and is in high demand on the lecture circuit.

She chaired the Ontario Labour Relations Board, the Ontario Law Reform Commission, and the Study on Access to Legal Services by the Disabled, and was a member of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Premier's Advisory Committee on Confederation, the Ontario Public Service Labour Relations Tribunal, and the University of Toronto Academic Discipline Tribunal.

She had already distinguished herself by 1983 when she was assigned to head the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment which was established to address the issue of disadvantage in the workplace for women, Aboriginal people, the disabled and other minorities. Her now famous report coined the term "employment equity" and set out strategies for protecting minority rights on the job. The concepts were adopted not only by the Supreme Court of Canada but also by the governments of New Zealand, Northern Ireland and South Africa.

While she wears her legal credentials with pride, they do not weigh her down. She is an accomplished pianist and an avid reader, as attested by the fact that she was chosen to be a judge of the Giller Literary Prize. She tends to introduce herself as "Rosie," liberally disseminates a warm charm in social situations, laughs easily, and routinely emphasizes the importance of her family and her Jewish heritage. She is married to Prof. Irving Abella, historian, author and activist. They have two sons, Jacob and Zachary, both attorneys.

Justice Abella was born in 1946 in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany to parents who had survived Nazi concentration camps. Her family immigrated to Canada in 1950.

In a 2003 speech to the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, she observed, "Now that I am a parent I understand what an act of faith in the future of humanity and justice it was for people like my parents to have children after the dehumanizing injustice they had endured. On the whole, their confidence has been vindicated. . . Human rights are the conceptual Phoenix that rose from the ashes of Auschwitz on the wings of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

However, she also warned of the need for continual vigilance. "Indifference is injustice's incubator. . . We know from experience that if there's intolerance, there's intolerance period. If one minority is at risk, all are at risk. … Who can argue that a society that tolerates differences, that encourages freedom of expression and dissent, that respects women and minorities, that has an independent judiciary and whose government is accountable - a society, in short, where tolerance is both the motivating core and the legally protected goal - is not a better society than one whose greatest tolerance is for intolerance."