This Day in Jewish History / The First Jew to Serve on Canada’s Top Court Dies

Bora Laskin was a liberal among conservatives and often found himself in the role of dissenter, even as chief justice.

David Green
David B. Green
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Bora Laskin
Bora LaskinCredit: Supreme Court of Canada
David Green
David B. Green

On March 26, 1984, Bora Laskin, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, died, at the age of 71.

Bora Laskin was born October 5, 1912, in Fort William, in northern Ontario. (Fort William merged in 1970 with its twin city, Port Arthur, and became Thunder Bay -- whose first mayor, incidentally, was Bora’s younger brother Saul). His parents, Max Laskin and the former Bluma Zendel, called their first son “Raphael,” in Hebrew, and for an English name, they turned for inspiration to the progressive Republican U.S. senator from Idaho, William E. Borah, who was perceived to be a defender of the Jews.

Max and Bluma were both Russian-born Jews who had immigrated to Canada in the early years of the century. Bora grew up speaking Yiddish at home. At Fort William Collegiate Institute, he was a star student and athlete, the valedictorian of his class. He also was president of the local Young Judea branch, having been raised in a staunchly Zionist household. His biographer, Philip Girard, describes Fort William as a culturally diverse and tolerant city, with minimal anti-Semitism.

In 1930, Laskin enrolled at the University of Toronto, where he studied in the honors law program led by the charismatic W.P.M. Kennedy. He received his B.A. in 1933, and followed that with further legal studies at U of T, at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School, and with a year at Harvard University. Yet when he looked for work in Toronto, he could not find a position. At the time, law firms were either Gentile or Jewish, and there was no mixing between the groups. Nor was Laskin offered a job at a Jewish firm. Instead, he went to work for the Canadian Abridgement, a law casebook, writing legal abstracts, and he was also involved in editing the Revised Statutes of Ontario.

In 1940, Laskin began teaching at the University of Toronto, remaining there until 1965, except for a brief period in the late ‘40s, when he taught at Osgoode Hall while the law faculty at U of T reorganized as an accredited school. He was one of those rare law professors who was expert in several fields – in his case, constitutional law, labor law and real estate law. He also was a strong civil libertarian, who worked with the Canadian Jewish Congress in laying the ground for the country’s human rights laws.

In 1965, Laskin was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal, and five years later, on March 19, 1970, he became Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s first appointee to the Supreme Court – which also made him the first Jew to serve on Canada’s top court.

Laskin was a liberal among judicial conservatives, and an activist among colleagues who took a narrow view of the law. As a consequence, he often found himself in the role of dissenter, even after he became the court’s 14th chief justice, on December 27, 1973. Not only was Laskin not the senior-most member of the court when he became the chief, he was actually the most junior sitting justice.

Laskin was a strong advocate of increased power for the federal government, and a strong civil libertarian. Although he played an important role in Canada’s adoption in 1982, of its Charter of Rights and Freedoms (a bill of rights), which greatly expanded the possibility of judicial review, he had little actual opportunity to hear many appeals based on the charter, because of his early death.

Laskin had been in ill health through much of the final years he was on the bench; he died on this date in 1984 of pneumonia. He was buried in a private ceremony, after his family turned down the possibility of a state funeral. His wife, the former Peggy Tenembaum, followed him in death two months later.

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