Stand against injustice
Supreme Court justice takes aim at ‘narcissistic populism’ in graduation speech
One of Canada’s top judges has made an impassioned plea to the graduating class of law students at an American university to stand against injustice fuelled by “narcissistic populism.’’
In a speech that seemingly took aim at the actions and words of the sitting American president, Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella did not once utter the name of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Yet Trump’s feuds with American judges who have halted his planned travel bans from predominantly Muslim countries, the ongoing fallout from his firing of former FBI director James Comey, and his populist policies ran through Abella’s keynote address at a graduation ceremony Sunday.
Abella told the graduating class at Brandeis University, west of Boston, Mass., that she has become deeply worried about the state of justice in the world seven decades after the Second World War.
After the war, countries committed themselves to the “promotion and protection of values designed to prevent a repetition of the war’s unimaginable human rights abuses,’’ she said.
Abella said that commitment has been “shattered by narcissistic populism, an unhealthy tolerance for intolerance, a cavalier indifference to equality, a deliberate amnesia about the instruments and values of democracy that are no less crucial than elections and a shocking disrespect for the borders between power and its independent adjudicators like the press and the courts,’’ sparking a round of applause.
The honorary degree was the latest in a string of honours for Abella, who was named global jurist of the year by the law school at Northwestern University in Chicago, Ill., in January, and last year became the first Canadian woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University.
The speech Sunday brought Abella to tears at points as she linked her personal history to contemporary events.
Her parents spent three years in Nazi concentration camps. Her father was the only member of his family to survive. The couple’s two-year-old son also died in the camps.
Abella was born July 1, 1946, in a refugee camp in Stuttgart, Germany, where her father, a lawyer, worked with American officials on legal services for displaced persons in the Allied zone of southwest Germany.
After the family immigrated to Canada, her father was told that non-citizens could not be lawyers. Abella was four years old at the time. She said it was at that moment she decided to become a lawyer.
Her father died a month before she graduated from law school.
Abella went on to become the first Jewish female on the Supreme Court, and headed a 1984 commission on employment equity.
In her keynote address, Abella invoked the memory of the Holocaust and said the mantra of “never again’’ had turned into “again and again’’ in today’s political climate.
“My life started in a country where there had been no democracy, no rights, no justice, and all because we were Jewish,’’ Abella told the graduates.
“We have a particular duty to wear our identities with pride and to promise our children that we will do everything humanly possible to keep the world safer for them than it was for their grandparents, a world where all children — regardless of race, colour, religion, or gender — can wear their identities with dignity, with pride, and in peace.’’
Justice Rosalie Abella looks on during a swearing-in ceremony at the Supreme Court of Canada for her and Justice Louise Charron, in Ottawa on Oct. 4, 2004. Abella has made an impassioned plea to the graduating class of law students at an American university to stand against injustice fuelled by “narcissistic populism.”