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Michelle O’Bonsawin: “I’m not a token Indigenous judge”

In a world where figures like Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh dominate the legal landscape, Michelle O’Bonsawin made a conscious effort to keep a low profile. However, in September, the 48-year-old mother of two made history as the first Indigenous judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in its nearly 150-year existence. This appointment was met with backlash, as critics scrutinized O’Bonsawin’s credentials, including her past experience as a judge at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice and her recent Ph.D. thesis (which is currently under embargo) focused on Indigenous law. O’Bonsawin’s personal experience as a member of the Abenaki community in Quebec’s Odanak First Nation has never been more relevant, as the Supreme Court will be hearing two landmark cases regarding Indigenous self-governance in the coming months. One of these cases, centered on Bill C-92, will determine whether it is within provincial jurisdiction to give Indigenous communities priority in child welfare cases. While O’Bonsawin has stated that she is a judge first and an Indigenous woman second, it is understandable that Canadians are curious to learn more about the woman who will be wielding the gavel. In this interview, O’Bonsawin shares some insights into her background and journey to becoming a Supreme Court judge. Despite coming from a working-class family with no legal professionals, O’Bonsawin knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue a career in law. Her distant cousin, Richard O’Bomsawin, who is the current chief of Odanak First Nation, tells her that they are related and that their family has a history of strong leadership. O’Bonsawin recently completed her Ph.D. defense, and her first job post-graduation is a highly coveted position on the Supreme Court. She took a brief leave from her program to focus on her application for the Supreme Court, and former Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin encouraged her to finish her degree. O’Bonsawin’s thesis, which is currently under embargo, delves into the use of Gladue principles in Canada’s legal system. These principles require judges to consider the impact of colonial traumas, such as racism and displacement, when sentencing Indigenous individuals in criminal trials. While the contents of her thesis are currently hidden, O’Bonsawin explains that she had a discussion with her supervisor and decided that it would be best for her thesis to be embargoed for better search engine optimization (SEO). 

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