by Alissa Schacter
Equity Officer and Policy Counsel, The Law Society of Manitoba
The country’s highest court exhibited boldness and initiative in its decision to sit outside of Ottawa for the first time in its 145-year history. Winnipeg had the great honour of hosting the nine Supreme Court judges during the last week of September.
The justices took up temporary residence in the Manitoba Court of Appeal. In addition to hearing a criminal and civil appeal, they had a jam packed schedule, which included meeting local high school students and law students, attending a reception with Mayor Bowman, hosting a Q&A event for the public at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, attending a presentation of sacred eagle feathers to the Manitoba courts, meeting with representatives of First Nations, Métis, and Francophone communities as well as with Executive members of the Law Society and Manitoba Bar Association. Chief Justice Richard Wagner even managed to make time to drop the puck at a Jets game. The justices were the guests of honour at a gala dinner attended by approximately 800 members of Manitoba’s legal profession. They mingled with the crowd in the packed foyer of the Convention Centre and played musical chairs, doing an admirable job of rubbing elbows with as many members of the bar as possible. Throughout the week, there was a palpable excitement in the air within the legal community, as their presence carried an aura of celebrity. Even beyond the legal community, many people took a keen interest and attended the hearings and the public events, which was exactly the point of the Court’s visit.
The Winnipeg visit was part of a broader commitment the Supreme Court has made to access to justice. The court has established an active presence on Twitter and Facebook, and in March 2018, it began posting plain language case summaries on its website. All of these initiatives are intended to help the public better understand the role of the Court and its decisions. As the Supreme Court presides over cases involving some of the most important social policy issues of our time, from same sex marriage and the right to assisted dying to delineating Indigenous rights, it has a hand in shaping Canada’s social fabric. It is imperative that the Canadian public understand the function of the Court so that they have confidence in our justice system. This is critical at a time when people increasingly obtain news and information in easy-to-digest nuggets via diffuse social media platforms, not all of which are reliable.
When the nine esteemed Supreme Court jurists hailing from around the country travelled to Winnipeg and spent the week meeting with a cross section of the legal and broader communities, they revealed their personalities, their senses of humour, their genuine curiosity about the local community and of course, their humanity. They put a human face on the Supreme Court and sent a powerful message that the Court wants to understand the people it serves and make itself more transparent and accessible to them. It also demonstrated the Court’s awareness of its need to adapt to the changing context in which it operates and to modernize its approach.
As in most endeavours, you create trust by fostering greater mutual understanding and building relationships. That is exactly what the nine judges did during their time in Winnipeg. Canada’s Supreme Court has long been venerated around the world. When the Court left its grand building on Wellington Street to head west to the Prairies, it also increased its profile and esteem among Canadians.