While strolling in Montreal years ago, Sheilah Martin was surprised to see a book she had written about principles of Quebec law in the storefront window of a popular shop.
Martin, who penned the tome as a law student, wasn’t even aware it had been published.
She says now that the moment taught her it was possible to think and write something into existence, put ideas out into the universe and do work that can make a difference.
Martin will have a highly visible and influential forum to do all of those things as the newest justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
In announcing Martin’s nomination to the top court Wednesday, the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lauded her strong focus on education, equality rights and increasing the number of under-represented groups in law schools and the legal profession.
Trudeau called her “an extraordinary jurist” with a wealth of experience who would be “a great voice on the Supreme Court.”
Born and raised in Montreal, Martin, who is 60, was trained in both civil and common law before moving to Alberta to pursue work as an educator, lawyer and judge.
She served on the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta in Calgary until June 2016 when she was appointed as a judge of the Courts of Appeal of Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Martin says she came from a family of modest means and saw the daily stress of trying to make ends meet.
“From an early age, I understood that it was up to me to work hard to achieve my goals,” she said in response to a questionnaire for Supreme Court candidates made public Wednesday.
Martin worked as a researcher and law professor before being called to the Alberta bar in 1989. From 1991 to 1996 she was acting dean and then dean of the University of Calgary’s faculty of law. She taught courses about subjects ranging from commercial transactions to feminist legal theory.
In her Supreme Court candidacy submission, Martin wrote of her passion for teaching and sharing a joy of learning.
“While my commitment to fairness and equal justice for all spans and unites my entire career, my most significant contribution has been to education, richly defined,” she said. “My guiding desire has been to use what I have learned to help others gain a greater understanding of the law: its purpose, role and promise.”
From 1996 to 2005, Martin practised criminal and constitutional litigation in Calgary. She was appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench in 2005.
Martin was married to lawyer Hersh Wolch, known for his tireless advocacy on behalf of wrongfully convicted Canadians, including David Milgaard. Wolch died of a heart attack in July at the age of 77.
Martin’s nomination to the Supreme Court ensures the nine-member bench will remain at full strength after Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin retires Dec. 15.
A new chief justice will be named in mid-December, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said Wednesday.
Last year, the Liberal government brought in a new Supreme Court appointment process to encourage more openness and diversity, which also requires justices to be functionally bilingual.
Trudeau was under pressure from some quarters to appoint an Indigenous person to the Supreme Court.
Wilson-Raybould said she looks forward to the day when an Indigenous justice will preside at the high court, but she preferred to keep the focus on Martin.
“I appreciate the skill, the knowledge of the law, the analytical ability, the clarity of thought that Justice Martin brings to the Supreme Court of Canada.”
Next Monday, the House of Commons justice committee will hold a hearing during which Wilson-Raybould and Kim Campbell, chair of an independent advisory board for Supreme Court appointments, plan to explain the selection process and the reasons Martin was nominated.
The Commons justice committee and the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee — as well as representatives of the Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party — will then be invited to participate in a question-and-answer session with Martin on Tuesday.
McLachlin is stepping down after 28 years on the court, including almost 18 years as chief. She is the first woman to hold the top job on the high court and is also Canada’s longest-serving chief justice.