Settling into an imposing red leather armchair in a wood-panelled office in Ottawa, Justice Mahmud Jamal recalled his anxious first moments in this country as a 14-year-old immigrant.
“I remember the first day here very well. I was scared,” he told Radio-Canada in a recent interview, describing the path that took him to the nation’s highest court — first from Kenya to England, then to Edmonton in 1981 for high school.
“I was scared for a lot of reasons. I left all my friends. I left a culture where I had spent my whole life. But at the same time, it was an opportunity to start life again.”
Coming from a modest family that moved halfway around the world in search of a better life, Jamal rose through the ranks of the Canadian legal world after graduating from McGill University’s law school. He was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in July 2021.
It’s a position he hopes to use to protect the rights of minorities and other historically disadvantaged groups — something he wrote about when completing his application to sit on Canada’s top court.
Jamal is the first person of colour to be nominated to Canada’s top court. He’s also a member of a religious minority.
Jamal grew up Muslim in the Ismaili community before converting to the Baha’i faith like his wife, who is an Iranian refugee.
He told Radio-Canada that his personal experience is an asset for the court, just like the personal experiences of each of his fellow Supreme Court justices.
“If you are a woman, if you are a man, if you are even a member of a minority, you bring your experience to work. I have experiences as a member of a visible minority, of a religious minority, so it gives a different perspective,” he said.
“That does not mean that I will decide all the causes in favour of minorities.”
Jamal conducted his interview with Radio-Canada entirely in French — a language he learned in Edmonton and perfected in Montreal.
“Obviously, in Montreal, there were a lot more opportunities to practice the language, but that was especially when I worked in a firm in Montreal for two summers. It was a completely French environment,” he said.
“Also, when I worked at the Quebec Court of Appeal for Judge [Melvin] Rothman, it was an opportunity to deepen my knowledge of French, especially with legal vocabulary.”
Jamal has made bilingualism a family value. His two sons will attend university in Montreal this fall.
“I never had in mind the possibility that the French language will be useful for my legal work,” he said.
“But it’s the same thing I say to my children — bilingualism, it’s a useful asset, you never know when it will be useful for work. I encourage them to learn the language, to immerse themselves in Quebec culture.”
‘People who have the skills … know they have to be bilingual’
Chief Justice Richard Wagner said the appointment of Jamal in 2021 confirmed that the federal government can find judges from diverse backgrounds who are also bilingual.
“We mentioned that we may be depriving ourselves of quality people who are not able to be bilingual. Well, it’s a non-issue,” Wagner said in a separate French interview.
“People who have the skills and who have the aspiration, one day, to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada know that they have to be bilingual.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will soon have a vacancy to fill on the bench. Supreme Court Justice Michael Moldaver is set to retire on Sept. 1.
Even though Supreme Court justices are not required by law to be bilingual, Wagner has been promoting the idea of a fully bilingual bench for several years. He said it’s a matter of “respect” for francophones.
“I think we’ve made progress over the last few years and we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t skimp,” he said. “We really have to recognize the importance of all judges being functionally bilingual in the court.”
The Liberal government has introduced Bill C-13, legislation to modernize the Official Languages Act. Among other things, it would require that all future Supreme Court justices be bilingual.
Neither Jamal nor Wagner would comment on any matters that are likely to come before the Supreme Court. One of those matters could be Quebec’s law on state secularism — still sometimes referred to as Bill 21 — which is now before the Quebec Court of Appeal.
Wagner said all candidates for a position on the Supreme Court are first evaluated by an independent committee based on their professional qualifications.
“Even though the nine judges often come from different provinces, with different languages and different professional backgrounds, different life experiences, different ethnic backgrounds, we come here with the same Canadian values … which are the same in Quebec or elsewhere in the country, in terms of the values of independence, impartiality and respect for institutions,” he said.