Bertha Wilson

Bertha Wernham Wilson CC FRSC (September 18, 1923 – April 28, 2007) was a Canadian jurist and the first female puisne justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Before her ascension to Canada's highest court, she was the first female associate and partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt and the first woman appointed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. During her time at Osler, she created the first in-firm research department in the Canadian legal industry.

Bertha Wilson
Bertha Wilson.jpg
Puisne Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada
In office
March 4, 1982 – January 4, 1991
Nominated byPierre Trudeau
Preceded byRonald Martland
Succeeded byFrank Iacobucci
Personal details
Bertha Wernham

September 18, 1923
Kirkcaldy, Scotland, U.K.
DiedApril 28, 2007(2007-04-28) (aged 83)
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
John Wilson
(m. 1945)
Alma materUniversity of Aberdeen
Dalhousie Law School

Early lifeEdit

Wilson was born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, on September 18, 1923.[1] She was the daughter of Archibald Wernham and Christina Noble.[2] Wilson received a Master of Arts degree in philosophy from the University of Aberdeen in 1944. In 1949, Bertha Wilson emigrated to Canada with her husband, Reverend John Wilson, a Presbyterian minister, whom she had married in 1945.[1] The couple settled in Renfrew, Ontario, after John Wilson accepted a posting as a pastor.[3] Three years later, in 1952, her husband became a naval chaplain during the Korean War, and she worked as a dental receptionist in Ottawa. In 1954, her husband was posted to Halifax, Nova Scotia and they both moved.[4]

Legal careerEdit

In 1955, Wilson was admitted to Dalhousie University to study law, and three years later she completed her Bachelor of Laws degree (LLB), and was called to the bar of Nova Scotia.[5] Wilson applied for and was accepted into a Master of Laws program at Harvard Law School, but chose not to attend.[6] Wilson moved to Toronto and joined Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt in 1958, a year before she was called to the bar of Ontario, where she later became the firm's first female associate. In 1968, Wilson became Osler's first female partner. She founded the research department at Osler, which was the first of its kind in Canada, becoming a model for other research departments.[7]

Wilson was the first woman appointed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario in 1975. In March, 1982, she became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, nominated by Pierre Trudeau. Wilson retired from the court in January, 1991, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and in 1992, she was named Companion of the Order of Canada.[8]

Wilson's noteworthy Supreme Court rulings include R v Morgentaler in 1988 (opinion striking down abortion law), R v Lavallée in 1990 (battered-wife syndrome as self-defence), Operation Dismantle v R in 1985 (judicial review), the minority decision in R v Stevens (1988) which was adopted later in R v Hess; R v Nguyen in 1990 (mens rea and statutory rape), Kosmopoulos v Constitution Insurance Co of Canada (piercing the "corporate veil"), the dissenting opinion in McKinney v University of Guelph in 1990 (mandatory retirement), Andrews v Law Society of British Columbia in 1989 (equality rights test), and Sobeys Stores Ltd v Yeomans in 1989 (interpretative authority of tribunals) which are among the foundational cases interpreting the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that was enacted in 1982, the year that she was appointed to the Supreme Court.

Royal Commission on Aboriginal PeoplesEdit

From 1991 to 1996, Wilson was a Commissioner of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP).[9] She gave a controversial and much-discussed speech about the role and influence of women in legal professions and the judiciary, titled "Will Women Judges Really Make a Difference?"[10]


Wilson developed Alzheimer's disease later in life and died in an Ottawa, Ontario retirement home on April 28, 2007, at the age of 84.[11]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Stoddart, Jennifer (June 5, 2007). "Bertha Wilson". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 20, 2018.
  2. ^ Canada, Supreme Court of (January 1, 2001). "Supreme Court of Canada - Biography - Bertha Wilson". Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  3. ^ "Workers' History Museum | Bertha Wilson". Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  4. ^ Women in Law: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook. Page 339
  5. ^ Canada, Supreme Court of (January 1, 2001). "Supreme Court of Canada - Biography - Bertha Wilson". Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  6. ^ Fernandez, Angela; Tice, Beatrice (2009). "Bertha Wilson's Practice Years (1958-75): Establishing a Research Practice and Founding a Research Department in Canada". In Brooks, Kim (ed.). Justice Bertha Wilson: One Woman's Difference (PDF). University of British Columbia Press. pp. 15–38. ISBN 978-0-7748-1732-5. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 22, 2016. Retrieved November 21, 2016.
  7. ^ Fernandez & Tice 2009, p. 16.
  8. ^ "Bertha Wilson | The Canadian Encyclopedia". Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  9. ^ "Bertha Wilson | The Canadian Encyclopedia". Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  10. ^ "Justice is a Woman with a Sword: Bertha Wilson (1923-2007)". April 30, 2007.
  11. ^ Globe & Mail obituary, April 30th, 2007[permanent dead link]

External linksEdit