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From R-L: The Honourable Richard Wagner, Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Adam Levine, President of the Jewish Federation of Wpg, Laurel Malkin, Vice President of the Jewish Federation of Wpg, Elaine Goldstine, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Wpg, and the Honourable Glen Joyal, Chief Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of Manitoba

L-R: The Honourable Justice Wagner and Adam Levine

Speech to the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg by the Honourable Richard Wagner, Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada

Nov 8, 2016



[Editor's note: The Honourable Richard Wagner, Justice fo the Supreme Court of Canada gave the remarks below to the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg at the Foyer of the Berney Theatre on Sept 12, 2016]


It gives me great pleasure to speak with you today. I was honoured to be invited to meet with members of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg. I owe a special thank you to Justices [Freda] Steele and [Lori] Spivak, who were instrumental in setting up this meeting today.


While I have only been in Winnipeg for 1 day, the imprint of the Jewish community on this city is evident. I need look no further than the Asper family and Izzy Asper’s catalyzing efforts to establish the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. I am looking forward to visiting the museum in the coming days. Winnipeg’s Jewish community has played so central a role in the life of this province and our country through its generosity and commitment to our public institutions.


Naturally, as a judge and former lawyer, my attention often gravitates to the legal profession. It comes as no surprise that throughout my career, I have been deeply inspired by lawyers and judges in my own community. But had I practiced in Winnipeg rather than Montreal, I would have had many Jewish lawyers and judges to look to for inspiration. Yude Henteleff would have been one such lawyer. His human rights advocacy and legal work on behalf of children and adults with disabilities are a model of a meaningful life in the law.


Former Chief Justice of Manitoba Samuel Freedman is another member of the legal profession worthy of emulation. Although he retired as Chief Justice when I was only at the start of my legal career, his story is one that greatly interests me. Born in an era of Anti-Semitism, he was able to set up a thriving legal practice and ascend to the highest court in the province. I know that his son followed in his father’s footsteps, sitting as a Court of Appeal judge in this province until his retirement a few years ago.


Of course, not only lawyers and judges make valuable contributions to the development of the law. I was impressed to learn about Sybil Shack, an educator whose writing and work with the CBC earned her a national profile. But her work in the community stretched beyond her work in education. Her service as President of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and on the Manitoba Law Reform Commission caught my attention. These two organizations have had and continue to have a profound impact on the evolution of the law.


But I have to tell you that I am a strong believer in the idea that the more you know and learn, a better person you become! And this is one of the reason I am here with you tonight. Since I joined the Supreme Court of Canada, I take every opportunity to meet new people in every provinces of Canada. I need to understand their needs, their concerns, their expectations, and appreciate the environment in which those people live. Rightly or wrongly, I believe I can do a better job as a Justice on a national court like the Supreme Court of Canada, once I have the chance to learn more about specific communities, special groups and individual of different horizons. During my stay in Winnipeg, I will have the privilege of meeting with the Provincial Bar, the students at the Law Faculty and various associations of French speaking Manitobans. I feel so privileged to meet and learn from all those people.


But there is another reason for my presence here with you tonight.


Justice is the last bastion of social order and stability.  The perception of justice by the public is all that stands between a thriving democracy and the upheaval of the social and political framework of our society. It is all that is stopping us from experiencing untold hardship and suffering, amidst a chaotic and violent backdrop. Where injustice prevails and inequity is enforced, democracy, freedom and our well-being are placed in jeopardy.


Gone are the days where the judiciary can hide behind its self constructed image of moral superiority and unrelenting stoicism.  As the public becomes more educated and our means of communication expand with new technology, that facade becomes less credible and the justice system only becomes less approachable.  Rather than lingering on the periphery and hiding behind assertions of judicial independence that need not be sacrificed, the courts must embrace this reality. 


And this reality requires the judiciary to embrace new forms of communication with the public.  It is no longer enough for judicial reasons to be the sole conduit with which the judiciary interacts with the legal profession and with society at large.  We must explore social media, build effective and informative websites, and engage with conventional media outlets such as newspaper publications and television networks.  While the court should not be justifying its decisions in the media, part of its role in the modern world is to explain what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. 


Perhaps most importantly, we must explain who we are.  Merely being appointed as a judge is no longer enough to earn the public's trust.  In our era, the public needs further assurances that the justice system, in spite of its flaws, remains impartial and free of ideological agendas.  And this starts with understanding and trusting the women and men behind the robes. 


With this in mind, I believe that we should remove the veil of secrecy and open the doors on the judicial appointment process.  The time has come for judges in the highest courts to undergo a public screening prior to appointment.  Having sat on the hot seat myself during the screening process for the Supreme Court of Canada, I can say that it is a small price to pay to enhance the public's confidence in the courts.  In fact, I found it quite enjoyable to share my story and my convictions with the country, knowing that it lends credibility to the institution.       


Breaking the traditional barrier between the judiciary and the public is not without danger, but I believe that it is imperative in building a foundation of trust.  The reality of the world we live in is that information will eventually become available.  Whether it is through wiki-leaks, a tell-all book deal, or a blogger with an inside source, information from behind the judicial facade will find its way out into the world.  The worst decision that the justice system can make is to passively stand by while this happens.  A better approach is to get in front of that information and to control the message.  And this can only be accomplished by embracing new mediums and a greater communication than the judiciary has historically exhibited.


I will conclude my remarks with this. As I have learned about the great leaders of the Jewish community in Winnipeg, and about the community’s vitality and longevity, I am eager to understand how this community has engendered a deep commitment to public service and public life in so many of its members. In meeting with you today, I hope I can begin to appreciate the threads within this community that have allowed it to thrive for well over 100 years. This small but vibrant community is deserving my deepest admiration. I am looking forward to the opportunity today to engage with you and discover more about the Jewish experience in Winnipeg.

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.