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"Big" Bertha Wernham Wilson

In office
March 4, 1982 – January 4, 1991
Preceded by Ronald Martland
Succeeded by Frank Iacobucci

Born September 18, 1923
Kirkcaldy, Scotland
Died April 28, 2007 (aged 83)
Ottawa, Ontario
Spouse(s) Rev. John Wilson

Bertha Wernham Wilson, CC (September 18, 1923, Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland – April 28, 2007, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) was a Canadian jurist and the first woman Puisne Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.


Early life

Born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, the daughter of Archibald Wernham and Christina Noble, she received a Master of Arts degree from University of Aberdeen in 1944. In 1949 Wilson emigrated to Canada with her husband, the Reverend John Wilson, whom she had married in 1945.

Professional career

She received a Bachelor of Laws degree from Dalhousie University and was called to the Nova Scotia Bar in 1957. She moved to Toronto in 1959, was called to the Ontario Bar and joined the firm of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt. She became a partner in 1968.

She was the first woman appointed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario in 1975. In 1982, she became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, by then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Wilson retired from the court in 1991 and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada that same year.

Wilson's Supreme Court rulings include: R. v. Morgentaler in 1988 (abortion procedures), R. v Lavallée in 1990 (battered-wife syndrome as self-defense), Operation Dismantle v. The Queen 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), Kosmopolous v. Constitution Insurance Co. of Canada (piercing "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 v. Yeomans and Labour Standards Tribunal (NS) in 1989 (interpretive authority of tribunals), among many other foundational cases interpreting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that was enacted the year she was appointed to the Supreme Court.

From 1991 to 1996, she was a Commissioner of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Bertha Wilson 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?”[1]

Wilson died in an Ottawa retirement home on April 28, 2007 of an unspecified "prolonged illness"[2] which some sources claim was Alzheimer's disease.[3]


See also

External links

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