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Justice Mahmud Jamal by SCC Collection

Supreme Court’s first BIPOC judge believes diversity and ‘pluralism’ exemplify what it means to be Canadian

Friday, October 29, 2021 @ 11:08 AM | By Cristin Schmitz


Supreme Court of Canada Justice Mahmud Jamal says his “abiding belief in pluralism” has been the leitmotif of a life that has taken him from his Kenyan birthplace to schooling in England, Canada and the United States to practising law across the country.

Justice Jamal was sworn in privately on July 1. The former Ontario Court of Appeal justice was publicly celebrated in a masked and socially distanced welcoming ceremony that was livestreamed on Oct. 28 in the top court’s walnut-panelled courtroom in Ottawa, with just 30 people attending including his eight new colleagues, legal VIPs and the judge’s immediate family.

Justice Mahmud Jamal

Justice Jamal, a former commercial and constitutional appellate litigator with Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt, was lauded for his strong intellect and work ethic, as well as his clarity of expression, curiosity, collegiality, humility, supportiveness and respect for equality and extensive pro bono work by federal Justice Minister David Lametti, Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey and the heads of the Law Society of Ontario, the Canadian Bar Association and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. Justice Jamal is also, by all accounts, “an all-around good guy,” Downey said.

Not only is Justice Jamal a “tremendous asset” to the highest court, his appointment is historic, bar leaders said.

“Your appointment transcends the individual,” Law Society of Ontario treasurer Teresa Donnelly said, addressing Justice Jamal. “As the first Supreme Court justice of colour your appointment strengthens public confidence in, respect for, and trust in, the judiciary.”

Law Society of Ontario treasurer Teresa Donnelly

Donnelly described Justice Jamal’s appointment as “truly a momentous occasion for legal professionals and the public.”

“For legal professionals your appointment encourages diversity within the bar which promotes the public interest,” she said. “You stand as a beacon of hope and possibility for all those who want to be, or who are, lawyers. Your appointment demonstrates clearly that public institutions in Canada are open to all members of society, including historically underrepresented groups such as Indigenous peoples, people of colour, women, individuals who identify as LGBTQ2S+, people with disabilities and others.”

Donnelly noted that judges are shaped by, and gain knowledge from, their different life experiences and the perspectives of the communities from which they come. “For an increasing number of Canadians not only is the justice system beyond their reach and resources, but the courts do not reflect the increasingly diverse population,” she said. “Your appointment is a significant step toward making the country’s highest court reflective of the diverse population it serves. The court and the people of Canada will benefit from your valuable knowledge, insight and perspectives.” 

When it came time for the judge to speak, he reflected on the experiences that led him to this point in his life.

“When I try to connect the dots in my own life, to bring meaning to the seeming random particularity of the 54 years, the only unifying principle that seems to stitch it all together is an abiding belief in pluralism, a belief in the inherent value of the diversity of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, languages, legal systems and perspectives that exemplify what it means to be Canadian,” he explained. “In my case that belief has arisen, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., not from logic, but from experience.”

Born in Nairobi in 1967, Justice Jamal said his family’s experience of moving from country to country “in search of a better life” is shared by many Canadians. “Our family were originally Ismaili Muslims from Gujarat in British India who migrated to East Africa during the construction of the Kenya/Uganda railway in the late 19th century. Three generations of us were born in Kenya, including me,” he said. “And I remained a very proud Kenyan citizen until I was 17. In 1969 my parents immigrated to the U.K. in the hope for a better future for their children. I grew up in a small village, an hour north of London where, I used to joke, we were the first foreigners since the Norman invaders in 1066 — and were often greeted with as much warmth.”

He added, “I can’t attest to the historical accuracy of this, but it certainly describes how we sometimes felt.”

Justice Jamal said that like many immigrants, he received a pluralistic cultural and religious upbringing, “with all its associated identity challenges. I was raised in school as a Christian, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and absorbing the values of the Church of England and, at home, as a Muslim learning Arabic prayer from the Qur’an and living as part of England’s Ismaili community.”

Justice Jamal thanked his parents who, like many immigrants, did not have the opportunity to attend university themselves, but who made “many sacrifices” so that he and his siblings could receive a higher education. “My parents told me to get an education because an education is something that nobody can ever take away from you,” he recalled.

Justice Jamal said his family “jumped at the opportunity” to immigrate to Edmonton, where they had relatives. “From our first day in Canada we felt welcome in Edmonton, like we had never felt before,” said the judge, who attended the same high school as hockey star, Wayne Gretzky.

Justice Jamal said that learning French had a pivotal effect on his life and on his career. “I therefore always urge young people, including my two sons, to learn and study French because it broadens and deepens your understanding of Canada and Canadians — and you never know what doors it might open for you in life,” said the fluently bilingual judge who studied economics, and holds both civil and common law degrees from McGill University, and a master’s in law from Yale.

The judge also expressed his “love and gratitude to my remarkable wife Goleta,” whose Farsi name, he explained, means “the flower of Tehran.” Born in Iran’s capital, his wife, four siblings and her recently widowed mother fled the country in1979 to escape the persecution of the Baha’i religious minority. “After they spent a few years in the Philippines Canada welcomed them as refugees,” Justice Jamal said. “For the 22 years that we’ve been married, Goleta has made my legal career possible,” he said. “More importantly she has done everything in her power to ensure that our sons, Darius and Justin, grow up into the impressive young men that they have become. She has deepened my understanding of the Baha’i faith, and its message of the spiritual unity of humankind, leading me to embrace the faith myself,” he said. “It is simply a gift to pass through life with her.”

Justice Jamal remarked that his appointment as the 90th judge of the Supreme Court was announced June 17, 2021 — the same day as the judge’s wedding anniversary — “making my appointment the second most important thing that happened to me on that day.”

After thanking, by name, the prime minister, the chair of the independent advisory board on the Supreme Court of Canada, his predecessor Rosalie Silberman Abella, and many co-workers, mentors, friends and family members, Justice Jamal said he is particularly touched, and sometimes surprised, by the outpouring of support for his appointment from Canadians across the country.

“I know that for many people my appointment adds another form of diversity to the Supreme Court,” he said. “I am fully aware that this office carries with it an enormous responsibility which I am very honoured to accept, and I want you to know that I will make every effort to do so.”

Justice Jamal also confessed that he is “sometimes daunted by the scale of what lies ahead.”

“If I begin to feel overwhelmed, however, I remind myself that the judicial role is simply to decide one case at a time, based on the law and the evidence, with no larger plan or agenda.”

Justice Jamal said he often finds “comfort and reassurance” in the advice of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who wrote in the 18th century that “‘the chief art of learning … is to attempt but little at a time. The widest excursions of the mind are made by short flights frequently repeated; the most lofty fabrics of science are formed by the continued accumulation of single propositions.’ ”

“That is sage advice, which I intend to follow,” Justice Jamal said.

Photo of Justice Mahmud Jamal by SCC Collection

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Dailyplease contact Cristin Schmitz at Cristin.schmitz@lexisnexis.ca or call 613 820-2794.