Justice Abella 2008Canada Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, her country’s first woman judge and first Jewish woman Supreme Court justice, spoke at Harvard on this date in 2010 about how her parents’ experience as Auschwitz survivors had shaped her own commitment to social justice and human rights. In 1976, at 29, Abella became the youngest person to serve a judge in Canada (she was pregnant at her swearing-in). As “author of the 1984 federal Royal Commission on Equality in Employment,” writes Irving Abella, her husband, at the Jewish Women’s Archive, she “created the term and concept of ‘employment equity,’ a new and unique strategy for reducing barriers in employment faced by women, aboriginal people, non-whites and persons with disabilities,” which was endorsed by the Supreme Court. (“Treating everyone alike,” says Abella, “means that the person in a wheelchair has the same right to work, but you’re not required to do anything to get him or her into the building. If you don’t acknowledge differences you can’t create equality.”) At Harvard, Abella called for “the rule of justice, not the rule of law,” and noted that “the most sophisticated array of laws, treaties, and conventions the international community has ever known” were devised in the aftermath of the Holocaust, “all stating that rights abuses will not be tolerated.” Yet the world has since failed to embrace the three key lessons of human rights, she said, as paraphrased by the Harvard Gazette: “that indifference is the incubator of injustice; that it’s not what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for; and that people must never forget how the world looks to the vulnerable.” Currently, three of nine Supreme Court justices in Canada, including the chief justice, are women.

“Equality is not a concept that produces the same results for everyone. It is a concept that seeks to identify and remove, barrier by barrier, discriminatory disadvantage.”—Rosalie Silberman Abella