About Justice Bertha Wilson

Professional Accomplishments

Madam Justice Bertha Wilson graduated from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland with an M.A. in 1944.  She obtained her law degree from Dalhousie University and was called to the Nova Scotia Bar in 1957 and the Ontario Bar in 1959.  She practised law at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP from 1959 to 1975, becoming the first woman partner in a major Canadian law firm in 1968.  She became the first woman on any appellate level court in Canada when she was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1975.  She became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada on March 4, 1982.  After retiring from the bench on January 4, 1991, she was appointed Commissioner of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples from 1991 to 1996.

If you are interested in learning more about the life of Bertha Wilson, her biography was written by Ellen Anderson and is entitled Judging Bertha Wilson:  Law as Large as Life (Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 2001).

Supreme Court of Canada Reasons Written by Madam Justice Bertha Wilson

Madam Justice Wilson wrote many foundational decisions interpreting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that was enacted the year she was appointed to the Supreme Court.  She was the author of the 1988 decision that overturned Criminal Code of Canada restrictions on abortion and in 1990, she wrote the judgment that recognized the battered-wife syndrome as a valid self-defence.   Below is a list of some of the significant Charter decisions written by Madam Justice Wilson with hyperlinks to the decisions.

Decision Significance

R. v. Morgentaler, [1988] 1 S.C.R. 30

This landmark decision overturned Criminal Code of Canada restrictions on abortion for violating a woman’s rights to “security of person” under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

R. v. Stevens, [1988] 1 S.C.R. 1153

Justice Wilson wrote a strong dissent in this decision, in which the majority refused the accused’s reliance on section 7 of the Charter in his challenge to an absolute liability statutory rape offence, as the Charter was not in force at the time of the offence.

Andrews v. Law Society of British Columbia, [1989] 1 S.C.R. 143

The Court laid down the test for alleged violations of section 15 of the Charter.  The majority (including Justice Wilson) held that the citizenship requirement for admission to the British Columbia Bar violated section 15 and could not be saved under section 1.

R. v. Lavallee, [1990] 1 S.C.R. 852

Justice Wilson authored the majority decision in Lavallee, which accepted battered-wife syndrome in respect of a defence of self-defence to a murder charge.

R. v. Hess ; R. v. Nguyen, [1990] 2 S.C.R. 906

Justice Wilson wrote for the majority in this case involving the same absolute liability statutory rape provision at issues in Stevens above.  She held that the provision unjustifiably violated section 7 of the Charter for its prohibition of a due diligence defence and declared the offending portion of the offence to be of no force and effect.

McKinney v. the University of Guelph, [1990] 3 S.C.R. 229

In this case regarding the university’s mandatory retirement policy, Justice Wilson (in dissent) developed an analysis of what constitutes “government” (or government action) and “law” within the scope of sections 32 and 15 of the Charter, respectively.  Unlike the majority, Justice Wilson would have found the impugned policy violated section 15 of the Charter.

Douglas/Kwantlen Faculty Association v. Douglas College, [1990] 3 S.C.R. 570

The McKinney case above was distinguished on its facts in this case, in which the majority found that the college and collective agreement provision regarding mandatory retirement constituted “government” and “law”, respectively, sufficient to attract section 15 Charter protection.

Lavigne v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, [1991] 2 S.C.R. 211

The Appellant union member objected to OPSEU’s use of union dues for political and charitable donations and argued that the requirement that he pay such dues violated his section 2(b) and 2(d) Charter rights.  Justice Wilson (and the majority of the Court) rejected those arguments.  Justice Wilson wrote that section 2(d) should not be expanded to protect a right not to associate.