Official Welcome Ceremony for the New Chief Justice

Remarks of the Right Honourable Richard Wagner, P.C.
Chief Justice of Canada

Introduction and Words of Welcome

Mr. Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau; distinguished members of the judiciary; the Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada; the Honourable Stéphanie Vallée, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Quebec; Ms. Sheila MacPherson, President of the Federation of Canadian Law Societies; Mr. Paul-Matthieu Grondin, Bâtonnier of the Barreau du Québec; Ms. Christina Gray, Secretary of the Indigenous Bar Association; former members of the Court and their spouses; distinguished guests; friends; ladies and gentlemen.

Very special greetings to the dozens of students from secondary schools on both sides of the Ottawa River, from the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario, the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est, the Commission scolaire des Portages-de-l’Outaouais, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Ottawa Catholic School Board, who are visiting the Supreme Court of Canada for the first time and taking part in the introduction ceremony for the Chief Justice of Canada. You are our future, and your presence is very important to all of us. Welcome!

What a beautiful day!

All those who were with me at the other three introduction ceremonies – in the Quebec Superior Court, the Quebec Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court – will recognize these first few introductory words. They are simple words indeed, but words that very clearly express how I feel today.

They express the pleasure, of course, but also the great comfort I take in being in the company of people whom I like, whom I admire and who, in some cases, inspire me every day.

I will not be saying these introductory words again, since this fourth introduction ceremony will obviously be my last (unless of course the next ceremony is posthumous, in which case I hope no one will say “What a beautiful day”!!!). And this is precisely why I would like to use the few minutes allotted to me, not to talk about myself and my career, but above all to share with you my vision of this Court’s role, of its place in the county and on the international stage, and of the objectives that will guide me in the coming years.

But before I turn to these points, allow me to digress for a moment to express my gratitude to all those who support me every day or who do me the honour of being here for me today, in person or in thought.

As Theodore Roosevelt said: “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

If I may, I’d like to begin by thanking each and every one of the speakers who came before me, and who’ve showered me with compliments I found to be greatly exaggerated. I don’t know if their testimony could withstand rigorous cross-examination, but I listened to it, as a judge must do, with an open mind and most attentively, and I’m willing to accept those comments and believe them most humbly, without testing their veracity. Thank you so much. I am truly touched by your words.

I’d like to offer my sincere thanks to my colleague Justice Abella, who, with her usual generosity, lavished praise on me during her presentation. I can imagine how many hours it must have taken her to come up with a few good qualities for me! Thank you Rosie for your generosity. Thank you for everything.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to so many people, some of whom are in this room, and some who are not but are nonetheless very important people to me. Your support and enthusiasm have inspired me to always do better, to push the limits of what I thought I was capable of. Today, I’m marking a huge personal milestone, but it’s one that I cannot take credit for alone.

There isn’t enough time today to thank everyone who has been part of this journey, but I will single out a few, just briefly.

To my colleagues on the bench, thank you. I use the word “colleagues,” but you all know you mean much more to me than that. This job demands so much of each of us – the long hours, the time away from family, the difficult questions we grapple with. Yet no matter what challenges you’ve faced in your day, each of you is always ready with a kind word, or a hand on the shoulder, or a joke when it’s needed. You hold each other up. I never cease to be impressed by your knowledge, your insight, your profound devotion to our democracy and rule of law – and your kindness. I have learned so much from each of you. Even our newest member, Justice Sheilah Martin, has already offered her contribution to this special day. Knowing that I wanted to open this ceremony to the public, she made some suggestions and, here we all are.

This is how we, on this bench, help each other do better, and help this institution do better.  Of course, as in any close-knit family, we do not always agree, but we are a team, and we respect and support each other. I am so proud and humbled to captain our mighty team of nine. And, although often called the name as an appellate judge, how appropriate is it today that I get a kick at being a Monday morning quarterback!

The collegiality we share comes from our shared commitment to this Court and to Justice, but it is also a product of strong leadership. With her incredible work ethic and relentless focus, Chief Justice McLachlin inspired all of us who had the honour to work with her. She led this court with a fierce determination to do what she thought was right, and a quiet dignity, even – or especially – in challenging circumstances. She moved us to see what united us rather than what divided us. The Court, and our law, is the better for it. Unfortunately, Chief Justice McLachlin could not be here with us today but her legacy will be with us always.

I also want to thank my family, without whom none of this would be possible. My children Charles and Catherine, of whom I’m so proud. They have been able to follow their own paths at their own pace, guided, I hope, by the values I tried to pass on to them, values that were handed down to me earlier by my parents, including my father Claude, whose nobility, integrity, kind-heartedness and generosity of spirit marked his contribution to the cause of justice in Quebec and Canada. I thank my children for being a credit to our name, especially as the third generation of jurists in the family.

While waiting to find out whether the fourth generation will also take an interest in the law, let me introduce them to you. My two princesses, Juliette and Charlotte, who inspire me every day. I adore you both. And I wouldn’t want to forget another princess on the way, who will be born in April, the first child of my son Charles and his spouse Jessica. If you only knew how many times I think about an issue that comes before us by seeking an answer that will give you a better world to grow up in.

December 12 of last year, like every year, was the birthday of my spouse Catherine. Coincidentally, it was also the date my appointment was announced by the Prime Minister, which Catherine saw as her birthday present! I hope you’re not expecting something similar next year, Catherine! After all, there are limits to what I can do!!

Speaking of Catherine, I would like to pay tribute to and thank all the spouses of the Court’s judges. Your support and your sacrifices allow us to dedicate ourselves to the Court’s business. You are incredible partners, and I thank you on behalf of all my colleagues.

Speaking of incredible people, I’d like to publicly thank my better half, Catherine, who has always supported me without giving up her critical sense. She is an exceptional judge, a wonderful partner and my favourite activity planner, who helps me maintain an essential balance between the vicissitudes and the finer aspects of life. I can assure her of my unwavering love.

I want to thank my golf partners, some of whom are with us today, and my old friends from Brébeuf college, where I studied, and from the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa, as well as partners from my firm, Lavery, where I practised for 24 years. They honour me with their presence. Lastly, how can I fail to mention the presence of many friends, including several members of the Court of Québec and former colleagues from the Superior Court and the Court of Appeal for whom I have so much affection, as well as representatives of the Bar of Montréal and the Centre d’accès à l’information juridique, two organizations that were a big part of my career and still hold a special place in my heart. Thank you for braving the cold of the Ottawa area to be with me today!

Our Diverse Heritage

Looking around this room, I am proud to see how far we have come as a society since I first began my career. We are more diverse. Our Prime Minister today is one of the youngest in our history, and the Bâtonnier du Québec is the youngest person ever to hold that role.  The ministers of justice for both Canada and Quebec are women. The President of the Federation of Law Societies is a woman from the Far North. Our federal Minister of Justice is of proud First Nations heritage. The Secretary of the Indigenous Bar Association, Ms. Christine Gray, is an honoured guest among us today, for the first time.  And in another first, we have opened this ceremony as much as we could to the public, with students joining us for this presentation. Our government and judiciary are becoming more diverse, more representative, and more accessible to Canadians. Welcome to 2018!

I’ve had some time – now that the adrenaline rush has worn off – to reflect on the importance of our system of justice, of this institution, and the times we’re living in. And on some of the things that make us unique as Canadians – our multicultural heritage, dual legal traditions, and strong institutions; how these have positioned us to deal with the challenges we see around the world today; and things the Court as an institution needs to do in response.

In Canada it is a truism to say that diversity is a strength; we don’t simply tolerate it, we embrace it. It is part of what makes us who we are. This country was built by industrious men and women from all corners of the earth, and by the indigenous peoples who lived here long before the rest of us arrived. Different cultures, languages, religions, experiences – all of this has been woven into the rich texture of our uniquely Canadian social fabric.

Yet as much as we celebrate diversity today, we have not always been kind to each other. We have begun the process of reconciliation with our indigenous co-citizens, with the goal of building a new relationship. The process is difficult, as it has to be; the scars run deep. We cannot change the past, but we can recommit ourselves each day to right the wrongs that we can. It will take time. But we will do the work. We are committed.

As a country, we also have not always welcomed immigrants. From the head tax imposed on Chinese Canadians from 1885 to 1923, to the refusal to allow South Asian passengers to disembark the Komagata Maru in 1914, to closing our doors to Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II – we made mistakes. Tragic and deadly mistakes. These mistakes did not make our country stronger or safer; they became our national shame.

We learned from those mistakes. We recognized what immigrants from other places had to offer our country. The diversity we celebrate is not something that just happened – it was a conscious choice we made as a society, and we continue to make through our decisions each day. Other societies seem to be going in a different direction, closing their doors instead of opening them, operating from fear over compassion. As we’ve learned all too well from history, that is the wrong approach. Of course we must be prudent. Terrorism and religious extremism do exist in this world, and they have no place in Canada. This Court is the ultimate guardian of our Constitution and ensures the protection of Canadians’ rights and freedoms as guaranteed under the Charter. We have strong courts across the country dedicated to the same goals of balancing security with freedom. The Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal, in particular, confront questions of security and immigration with wisdom and nuance, on a daily basis. Our legal system is strong and flexible enough to meet the challenge.

Our Legal Traditions

Diversity is also a strength in our legal tradition, which blends two proud linguistic and legal traditions: French and English, civil law and common law. Our two legal traditions may approach problems in different ways, but in the end they are Canadian traditions, and they are built on shared moral values of fairness, democracy, and the rule of law. Because of this shared foundation, and because of the conversations that these two systems have in the deliberations and decisions of this Court, we cannot say the common law and the civil law are wholly independent from each other.

It’s because of these conversations that this Court has been able to clarify that there is a contractual duty to act in good faith in common law,Footnote 1 an obligation that was previously explicit only in civil law rules. These traditions influence each other, evolve together, and when examined together illuminate fundamental values. In some ways, each brings out the best in the other.

Our Democratic Institutions

When I think about the things that make Canada great, that make our country what it is, many other things come to mind. Hockey, the great outdoors! I could go on, of course. This is a great country with so many unique and wonderful features. But as a jurist one aspect strikes me in particular – something that probably won’t ever make a top-ten list or be celebrated in a viral video. It’s something as essential as it is… let’s try to be kind and say, “unexciting.” It’s the strength of our national institutions – institutions like the Supreme Court of Canada.

As a stable and peaceful country for so long, we’ve had the luxury to take the institutions that have assured that peace and stability for granted. We have a vibrant democracy, robust protections for individual rights and freedoms in the Charter and elsewhere in our law, and we respect the public institutions that provide a forum to work out our disagreements peacefully and constructively. The Court protects minority rights, of course, but it works for the benefit of each and every Canadian.

To help Canadians resolve their disagreements is why this building exists. They bring their disputes to this Court because they have faith in our justice system, and confidence they will get a fair hearing. That’s not to say everyone agrees with every outcome, or that everyone is happy in the end. Many of the disputes that end up in court are deeply personal. Think about the parent fighting for custody of a child when the other parent wants to relocate to a foreign country. Think about the worker fighting to get her job and her livelihood back after she believes she was wrongfully dismissed. Think, even, about the convicted offender who believes the evidence against him was gathered in violation of his Charter rights. The outcomes of these disputes are life-altering! Thus, the importance of maintaining public confidence in the Justice system, because public confidence is the lynchpin of our democracy. These issues are much too important for us not to ensure that the judiciary remains strong and independent. But litigants must still have access to the courts. . . .

To fulfill our mission as judges and lawyers, we need to provide better access to justice for Canadians. That remains a challenge, for so many complex and interconnected reasons. It is not simply about economic access to a lawyer or court delays. It is about access to information, legal education, and preventative programs. It is also about simplifying the process. We should strive to obtain good justice for all and not exceptional justice for a few. As much as we may want a perfect system, we live in the real world, with real challenges and limitations and competing priorities. But that does not mean we should not continue to aim for a better justice, because the higher our aim, the more we will achieve.

Our Judicial Institutions

One way we strive to do better is through two important judicial institutions.  In my new role as Chief Justice of Canada I also have the honour, and the duty, to lead the Canadian Judicial Council and the National Judicial Institute. Most Canadians have probably never heard of them, but they are crucial to the strength and success of our legal system, and I want to say a few words about them here.

The National Judicial Institute is the principal Canadian provider of continuing education programs for judges. Shortly after first being appointed to the bench, and throughout their judicial careers, Canadian judges receive an unparalleled education provided by the expert staff of the Institute and by hundreds of volunteers from our courts, our universities, the legal professions and our communities.

The Canadian Judicial Council is the place where Canada’s 39 federally-appointed chief justices, from all our provinces and territories as well as our national courts, meet to deliberate on judicial education, judicial conduct and the improvement of judicial services for Canadians. The judges who sit on the Council have decades of experience and are intimately familiar with the challenges faced by Canadians in our courts – litigants, victims, accused persons, and others.

It has become increasingly evident that our procedures for dealing with serious judicial conduct complaints are outmoded, slow, and opaque. Furthermore, while Canadians expect transparency and accountability, we continue to operate under 1970s models of judicial administration. In one of her last acts as Council chair, former Chief Justice McLachlin began an important dialogue with the federal government about reforming our judicial administration. I look forward to pursue that important work in partnership with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice, in the near future. This will only make our legal system stronger and more responsive to Canadians’ needs.

Our Place in a Troubled World

As Canadians, we take the rule of law for granted, but it is an incredible achievement. We are living in troubled times. Pick up any newspaper on any given day and you’ll see countless examples of countries where, to varying degrees, the rule of law is weakening. Where governments intimidate the judiciary, law societies and the traditional media with threats and arrests. Where institutional biases deliver different outcomes depending on a litigant’s class, gender, religion or race.

In Canada we have been mostly insulated from these developments, thankfully. I would argue that it is because Canadians continue to have confidence in their institutions, particularly their legal institutions, to act fairly and justly. This Court is forceful because we stand for truth and justice, for democracy and the rule of law. We don’t often frame it in such high-sounding rhetoric, but this is ultimately the source of our strength. We are mighty because Canadians respect and trust the work that we do. But that doesn’t mean we are immune to all the changes that are happening elsewhere. We can’t be complacent in protecting our values. And by “we” I don’t just mean the judges or the lawyers or the people in this room; I mean all of us. All Canadians. Because we are in this together.

But we aren’t the only ones with a stake in our success. In these troubled times, other countries and other courts are looking to us as a reference – not because of our military or economic power, but because of our legal and – dare I say – moral strength. The rule of law is one of our “killer apps,” to use a modern-day metaphor – something so good that everyone else wants it. Our professional and independent judiciary, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, our commitment to making justice accessible to those who need it: these are the things that others see when they look at Canada.  These, too, are our killer apps.

The Changing Media Landscape

A few moments ago, I said “pick up any newspaper” – but that isn’t the way many Canadians get their news these days, is it? According to a recent study, four out of ten Canadians get their news primarily through social media, second only to South Korea among developed nations.Footnote 2 This is problematic because we know that social media sites don’t neutrally deliver content to your newsfeed; they curate it according to the profile they’ve gathered from the sites you visit, the stories you click on, and the posts that you like and share. In other words, the way that social media delivers the news is by telling you what you want to hear.

As former President Barack Obama warned, “[o]ne of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases.”Footnote 3 That is a profound and distressing statement. The challenge he identifies is how to find common groundFootnote 4 in the culture of clickbait – a challenge for which there is no easy solution.

The shift to social media has come at the expense of the traditional media this Court once solely relied on – and continues to rely heavily on – to communicate with the public. But the media landscape has changed so much in the last ten years that it is almost unrecognizable. We used to have a regular group of journalists whose beat was the Supreme Court, and sometimes only the Supreme Court. Now the reporters assigned to cover us are also covering other courts, justice issues in general, Parliament Hill, you name it. Pulled in a dozen different directions and despite all their talent, experience, and goodwill, they simply don’t have the time to read a sixty-page judgment and understand all its nuances before their deadline, let alone write a thorough account of it. For all practical purposes, it means that the decisions that are handed down from this bench may become less accessible to the average Canadian. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. So when Canadians begin to question – on social media, sometimes with vitriol – what some of their institutions are doing, can we really blame them?

The Court’s Response

I realize some of this may sound bleak, but I just wanted to make sure I had your attention. This is not a time to throw up our hands, or wring our hands, or any of the other things people do with their hands in times of crisis. This is not the time to be cynical, either; cynicism is just a way of giving up without saying so.

So what can we do? What can this Court do, and what can other courts do? For me, the answer is simple: our job. But we cannot do our job the same way we always have. Society has changed, and so must we. We must be flexible, adaptable, open-minded. Again: welcome to 2018.

Of course we will continue to hear cases and deliver well-reasoned and impartial decisions on the issues that matter to Canadians while jealously preserving our duty of restraint to shield ourselves from the controversy inherent in public debate. But we also have a responsibility to be transparent.  We are already looking at ways to work with the media better and communicate with the public more directly. This is in addition to the host of measures this Court has already taken to make the job of the traditional media easier and to communicate directly and effectively with the public, including through our Twitter account. Judges and courts must adjust and must explain who they are, what they do and how they do it. We have some exciting initiatives planned in the next few months, and I personally am very excited to see where they will go.

Some may consider this emphasis on reaching out to the public a little radical. I don’t think it is. All we are doing is recognizing that we owe it to Canadians to be transparent and keep them informed.

Conclusion – A More Just Society

I’ve shared with you some of my thoughts on where we’re coming from, and where we’ve been. I’ve talked about why I think this Court matters to the world, and to Canadians. There are a lot of challenges ahead for this Court, and for Canada. Looking around this room, and knowing Canadians as I do, I am excited for this Court to face them. I’m excited to see where we go from here.

We’re sitting in an architecturally impressive building, in a formal courtroom. It’s been just over five years, and I still feel a little tingle of excitement when I walk in here. It is a special place. But this is no ivory tower. This is the Supreme Court of Canada. Every Canadian should feel that they can walk through these doors and sit in this courtroom. They should feel that they belong here. It is their place as much as it is ours up here on the bench. We just work here, for them.

Churchill said: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

The challenges on the horizon cannot be addressed successfully by a single judge. But I know I can count on the support and determination of my colleagues and the entire Supreme Court team and that together we will work tirelessly, to the best of our ability, so we can leave our children and grandchildren, and yours, a society that is more open, more peaceful and more just!

That is how far my commitment extends.

Thank you for your kind attention.



Footnote 1

Bhasin v. Hrynew, 2014 SCC 71, [2014] 3 S.C.R. 494.

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Footnote 2

Jenny Yuen, 42% of Canadians get their news through social media: Study, Toronto Sun (January 14, 2018).

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Footnote 3

Laura Smith-Spark, Obama warns over divisive social media use in Prince Harry interview, CNN (December 27, 2017).

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Footnote 4


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Remarks of the Right Honourable Richard Wagner, P.C.
Chief Justice of Canada
Official Welcome Ceremony for the New Chief Justice
Ottawa, Ontario
February 5, 2018