Meet the Judges: Get to Know Your Supreme Court at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (Winnipeg)

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

Thank you for that kind introduction. And thank you to Dr. Young for hosting us here in this incredible venue, a true landmark for human rights. Thank you also to Chief Justice Chartier, who, when I told him the Court would be coming to his city, immediately began planning this event we find ourselves at today. Thank you.

And thank you for joining us, everyone. My colleagues and I are delighted to see so many people have come out to get to know their Supreme Court. We are so pleased that we can share this time with you. This gathering is unlike anything we have ever done before. I, personally, am very excited to answer your questions and hear what you have to say.

But first, let me say a few words about why we are here, and why we felt it was so important for the Court to come. People have asked me why the Court chose Winnipeg as the place it would hear cases outside of Ottawa for the first time, ever. That’s easy. Chief Justice Chartier and Chief Justice Joyal convinced me that Manitoba was the friendliest province and we would have a fantastic time here. They were right!

But on top of that, Winnipeg is a city at a confluence, a place of coming-together, in more ways than one. On the grand scale, it is at the geographical centre of Canada. On a more local level, it is the place where two major rivers meet, the Red and the Assiniboine. This made it an important trading centre for Indigenous peoples thousands of years before the first settlers arrived. Today, it is a modern, multicultural city – a true microcosm of Canada.

No less importantly, Winnipeg and Manitoba were home to some of the seminal moments in Canadian legal history – and Canadian human rights history. In 1919, over 30,000 workers left their jobs to fight for better working conditions. The Winnipeg General Strike brought the city to a standstill. In the short-term, the workers did not gain very much. But their fight inspired others. Decades later, Canadian workers gained the rights to unionize and bargain collectively, rights that were enshrined in our Constitution with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But fifty years before the strike, another fight for rights and justice took place on these lands. The Métis National Committee, led by Louis Riel, sat down to negotiate a union with Canada, under very difficult circumstances. In 1870, the Province of Manitoba joined Confederation, with an agreement that the province would be officially bilingual, and that 1.4 million acres of land would be reserved for the children of Métis residents. The Métis had their rights vindicated only in 2013. The wheels of justice sometimes turn slowly.

But they do turn. It is the role of the courts to ensure that. And it is the role of the courts to ensure people’s rights are upheld. So it is fitting that we meet you here at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a museum dedicated to memorializing and celebrating battles like the ones that have taken place in this province, these and so many others. The fight for rights is never easy, but thanks to all of those who came before us, we enjoy rights like these today. They are enshrined in, and enforceable by, law. Rights like the ones we have in the Charter, which are so fundamental to our democracy and rule of law.

At the Supreme Court, everything we do is in support of the rule of law. Our essential task is to make independent and impartial decisions about issues that matter to you. Not every individual case will affect every Canadian, of course. But each case changes the way people relate to each other, or to their governments, or to their employers for example, or to different institutions. Even as we decide what should happen between two individual parties, we clarify what the law is for everyone.

That is why it is important that people understand how and why a given decision was reached. It is hard to have faith in something if you don’t understand it. It is hard to trust a decision maker if you don’t know who they are. This is why I believe it is so important to show you how our justice system works, and who judges are, up close, and in person.

That is why my colleagues and I are here today. That is why we are hearing cases for the first time ever outside of Ottawa. We want you to see and understand what we do. Being here in Winnipeg makes it a little easier for you to see your highest court in person. Since my appointment as Chief Justice, one of my main priorities has been to make the Court more open and accessible to all Canadians. Not just legal professionals or people who happen to live in Ottawa. Everyone.

This isn’t because we want to be “popular.” Courts make decisions that are definitely unpopular. It is an occupational hazard. We don’t need Canadians to love us; trust me, we have thick skins. We can take it. But we do want you to understand us – what our role is in Canadian society, what kind of work we do, and how that work affects you.

As part of that effort, the Court published its first annual Year in Review in April. This document explains the Court’s work using plain language, photos, and graphics. We have also started publishing plain-language case summaries, called Cases in Brief, in March of 2018. As of Friday, we have published 60 of them. We have also published two “Case Pre-Briefs” to help you quickly understand the issues in the cases we are hearing this week.

We are also moving into new realms of communication, publishing regular updates on Facebook and Twitter, where I hope you will follow our updates.

Now, we could not bring all of you to our courtroom in Ottawa. But we did find a way to bring a bit of our courtroom – and, indeed, our entire building – here to you in Winnipeg. I hope you will enjoy this virtual tour. Now, I’ve talked for quite a while. We didn’t actually come here to talk. We came here to listen: to listen to counsel presenting arguments in two cases, of course – but also to listen to the people we meet during the week. So with that, I think I can stop talking and after the video my colleagues and I can start listening to what you have to say.

Thank you.


Remarks by the Right Honourable Richard Wagner, P.C.
Chief Justice of Canada
Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Winnipeg, Manitoba
September 25, 2019