Canadian Supreme Court Justice Selected as 66th Commencement Speaker

Rosalie Silberman Abella
Rosalie Silberman Abella

Rosalie Silberman Abella, a justice on the Supreme Court of Canada and an expert on human-rights law, was chosen to deliver the commencement address at the university’s 66th Commencement. “Justice Abella’s personal story and legal career are an inspiring example to our graduates of what we can accomplish when we use our education to the betterment of the world,” says President Ron Liebowitz. “She is a judge with whom our namesake Justice Louis D. Brandeis would have found much in common: a commitment to the protection of those who are not at the center of power in society.” Abella was among five distinguished individuals slated to receive honorary degrees at the Sunday, May 21, ceremony held at the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center.

Abella was born in a refugee camp in Stuttgart, Germany, to parents who had spent three years in Nazi concentration camps and whose 2-year-old son perished in Treblinka. In 1950, the Silberman family immigrated to Canada. By age 4, Abella had decided to become a lawyer, inspired by her father, who had been a brilliant law student in Poland before the war. But when he learned he would have to become a Canadian citizen, which would take five years, in order to practice law, he went into insurance instead to support his young family.

After earning an LLB from the University of Toronto, Abella was called to the Ontario Bar in 1972. She practiced civil and criminal litigation before becoming a jurist on the Ontario Family Court in 1976 at age 29, the youngest — and first pregnant — person ever appointed to Canada’s judiciary. Sixteen years later, she was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal. In 2004, she became the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Abella was the sole Commissioner of the 1984 federal Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, which created the concept of “employment equity” in an effort to end workplace discrimination against women, indigenous peoples, nonwhite minorities and persons with disabilities. The report was implemented in Canada and several other countries.

The other distinguished individuals selected to receive honorary degrees at Commencement were:

• Computer scientist Leslie Lamport, MA’63, PhD’72, celebrated as the “father of principled distributed computing,” who won the 2013 A.M. Turing Award, the Nobel Prize of computing.

• Provost and chief academic officer Lisa M. Lynch, P’17, who served as interim president at Brandeis from July 2015 through June 2016, and is the Maurice B. Hexter Professor of Social and Economic Policy.

• Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, the first African- American to be elected to that post. He served two terms as governor, from 2007 to 2015. He is chair of the advisory board for Our Generation Speaks, an innovative leadership program created in partnership with Brandeis and MassChallenge.

• Barry Shrage, president of CJP (Combined Jewish Philanthropies), Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation.