Canada’s first Jewish chief justice
The Right Honourable Bora Laskin was a respected constitutional and labour law professor and a respected justice on the Supreme Court of Canada from 1970 until his death in Ottawa in 1984. From 1973 until 1984, he served as chief justice of Canada and was the first Jew appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal and to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Laskin was born in Fort William (now Thunder Bay) on October 5, 1912. In high school, he excelled in both academics and sports and was his graduating class valedictorian. He earned his BA and MA from the University of Toronto and law degrees from Osgoode Hall in 1936 and Harvard in 1937.
He returned to Toronto and found it hard to find a job due to anti-Semitism in the legal profession. His first legal job was writing case summaries for The Canadian Abridgement.
Laskin found his calling as a law professor. He taught at University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall Law School from 1940 to 1965 and was a founder of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. He wrote numerous texts including the first casebook in Canada on constitutional law which was used by a generation of law students across the country. Laskin was one of the leading Canadian experts in constitutional law and labour law during this time
Until the 1950s in Ontario and other provinces it was common for Jews, blacks and Asians to be prohibited from purchasing land in many places. Laskin was an important part of the Canadian Jewish Congress legal team responsible for fighting to abolish these bans.
Laskin was appointed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario in 1965. In 1970, prime minister Pierre Trudeau appointed Laskin to the Supreme Court of Canada. He was the first justice on the Supreme Court not descended from Canada’s two “Founding Peoples” – the English and the French. In 1973, Trudeau appointed Laskin chief justice.
Laskin lived in Ottawa from the time of his appointment to the Supreme Court. He was married to Peggy Tenenbaum and they had two children: John, who became a lawyer and judge and now serves on the Court of Appeal for Ontario, and Barbara, a communications professional.
Laskin received honorary degrees from many Canadian universities as well as from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and University of Padova in Italy.
He passed away on March 26, 1984, at age 71, and Peggy died shortly after.
The Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University in Laskin’s hometown of Thunder Bay and the Bora Laskin Law Society, Ottawa’s Jewish law society, are both named in his honour.
Ben Dodek is a Grade 10 student at Nepean High School and a graduate of OJCS.
Throughout 2017, in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is publishing a series of profiles spotlighting the contributions of historically important Jewish Canadians to our country. Previously in the series: