Nominee looks to future where it's 'not remarkable' women are majority on top court

OTTAWA — While Mary Moreau's nomination to Canada's top court is history-making, she told members of Parliament and senators on Thursday that she looks forward to the day when it's not.

The chief justice of the Court of King's Bench of Alberta reflected on how far the legal profession and courts have come on women's representation during a hearing held to scrutinize her resume and readiness to join the Supreme Court of Canada.

Her appointment to the court would make it so that five out of nine justices are women. Women would hold a majority on the bench for the first time in the court's 148-year history.

"We have seen an incredible improvement," the veteran judge said during the question-and-answer session on Thursday.

She recalled how women only made up about a quarter of students when she attended law school, a proportion that is now closer to 50 per cent.

"Then I decided I really like criminal law, and looked around me, and there were very few women practising criminal law at the time," Moreau said, adding that was also the case once she was appointed as a judge.

The room where Moreau was testifying featured rows of chairs for guests, many of whom were law students.

"It's a real thrill" to think that depending on the outcome of the nomination, "I may be part of a court that is actually majority women," said Moreau.

"What will be a really neat thing, if I might say, is when it's not remarkable."

For slightly more than two hours, Moreau fielded wide-ranging questions from 22 MPs and senators gathered around a committee table, along with several more who appeared virtually, in what amounted to a publicly aired group job interview.

Topics included her approach to dealing with mental health issues among accused people in the legal system, improving the justice system for victims, the challenge of digitizing the courts and the relationship between the judiciary and Parliament.

Moreau expounded her thinking on the issues raised by the panel.

But she avoided offering thoughts on matters that could still come before the top court, including the pre-exemptive use of the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as language rights.

The Supreme Court has the final say on criminal and civil matters brought in Canada's justice system, and it can hear cases in all areas of the law. It can strike down government legislation that infringes on the Constitution or Charter rights, and require major policy rethinks on matters of significant public importance.

Before Thursday's questioning got underway, Moreau introduced herself as the sixth child in a family of eight, born to a father who fought for more French-language schools in Alberta, which she attended as a francophone in the English-majority province.

Later in the hearing, Moreau pointed to her father's fight for his children's access to French-language education as helping form her view on minority rights.

At another point, Ontario MP Marco Mendicino joked that she and her siblings had nearly made up the complement of the nine-seat Supreme Court, commenting she is likely experienced when it comes to the dynamics of a group that size.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau selected Moreau to fill the Supreme Court vacancy from a shortlist of two names, whittled down from a list of 13 applicants by an independent advisory board tasked with helping find a nominee. That board was chaired by Wade MacLauchlan, a former premier of Prince Edward Island.

He told MPs in a special meeting earlier in the day that the top court needed a candidate with both constitutional and criminal law expertise.

MacLauchlan said that was based on discussions about the institutional needs of the court, including with Chief Justice Richard Wagner.

In addition to being able to speak French, the candidate who filled the seat also needed to hail from either Western Canada or the North, to ensure the court upholds its regional representation.

Moreau said during her nomination hearing that her roots run deep in Alberta, and she is a life-long Edmontonian who still has four children living in the province.

"I'm a westerner," she said.

Before her appointment as an Alberta judge nearly 30 years ago, Moreau practised law in her hometown of Edmonton, handling a mix of civil, criminal and constitutional cases.

MacLauchlan, speaking in French, told MPs that the fact Moreau is a woman also factored into the "package" of why she was shortlisted.

"Given the situation of women and intolerance, and unfortunately issues of equity that continue to plague women in this country, I think it's quite critical that at our apex court, we finally have a majority of women," Justice Minister Arif Virani said during the Thursday committee meeting.

"Instead of parking their gender and other lived experiences at the door, they bring that into their judicial decision-making, and it helps inform the judicial decision-making. That's what I see in the candidacy of a person like Mary Moreau. I think that's a positive step forward for gender equality in Canada."

Former justice Russell Brown retired from his seat on the top bench in June.

His exit came amid a probe by the Canadian Judicial Council into an allegation of misconduct against him stemming from an incident in Arizona in January, in which he was accused of being intoxicated and harassing a group — an allegation Brown had denied.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov.2, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled the surname of former Prince Edward Island premier Wade MacLauchlan.