voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit

Owning Optimism: A Reflection on the Q&A with The Honourable Justice Abella

Shaké Melanie Sarkhanian

She never saw her parents sad. They emanated happiness. Her trauma never undermines her.

On February 7, 2017, The Honourable Justice Abella visited the Faculty of Law at McGill for a Q&A session with students. The Moot Court was filled with students excited to ask her questions. The topics ranged from what the most prominent areas of the law will be in her opinion to her favourite book. What left me in awe was her happy and candid demeanor to share. Despite the room set-up that resembled a panel discussion, the Q&A felt like an intimate afternoon with Justice Abella. She openly reflected on her personal journey and accomplishments while looking towards the future of the profession with optimism. My first thoughts about her accomplishments focused on her appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada, her numerous honorary degrees, and being named the 2017 Global Jurist of the Year by Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center for International Human Rights. What made her accomplishments even more inspiring was learning about her perseverance and ownership of her family history that served as a motivation to pursue law and excel in this field.

Justice Abella was born in the Stuttgart camp for displaced persons following the horrific experience of the Holocaust. Her parents were survivors. Her father who studied law was never able to practice his profession, turning instead to his daughter for hope of a better future for her. Justice Abella’s family history touches many students who are children of immigrants, refugees, and descendants of survivors of traumas. Our parents want us to have better lives than they did, to pursue our dreams, and to be boundless. It is inspiring that she carries her past with determination and optimism. In particular, her experience as a woman who flourished in both her career and family life at the cusp of the rise of female professionals demonstrates her strength. During the Q&A, Justice Abella provided advice that speaks to students, words that I continue to reflect on:  

(1)  Do not take anyone’s advice. Listen to yourself.

Expectations can be hindrances to success. Justice Abella was appointed to the Ontario Family Court when she was 29 and pregnant. She was the first and only female on the Court. She spoke about how the media was shocked that she would take on such an appointment, given her pregnancy, but she didn’t stumble. Instead, Justice Abella thought about what was right for her at the time and proceeded with her new position, exceeding expectations and representing change in the family law context. She listened to herself. As we enter the legal field and seek change, we will be met with obstacles. When we feel undermined, discouraged, or misplaced, let’s become familiar with our own voices and our own motivations to help us do what is best for us.

(2)  A work-life balance does not exist. Create what works for you.

Seeking a work-life balance sounds like an ideal that many of us want to try and reach. Justice Abella refused and continues to dismiss questions about how to achieve a work-life balance. She says that there isn’t a magic formula to achieve such a balance. Support from her husband helped her take on many leadership roles in law reform, such as Commissioner of the 1984 Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, Chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board, and Chair of the Ontario Law Reform. She made time to go home to put her kids to bed, and then return to the office. What worked for her was unique to her life. Instead of chasing an ideal, let’s define what we find desirable in our own lives.

(3)  Seize opportunities.

There is no single path to becoming a successful young female professional. Making decisions on what opportunities will serve us well for career development is a tough exercise. Justice Abella’s approach has always been to seize the opportunity. With different positions, she has explored numerous areas of law with an optimistic outlook for learning, including criminal law, family law, and labour law. When she was invited to teach at McGill, she asked to teach administrative law to learn more about it through her students. She didn’t claim to be an expert. When we desire to learn, we will desire to seize the opportunity.

Justice Abella’s personal journey is encouraging for many reasons. She sought justice in her own family’s context by pursuing law. She found happiness in the process of building a career and creating a family in her own way. She carries her story with her in learning to understand different perspectives in changing areas of law.

It is important to remember. It is even more important to persevere. Let’s own our optimism.  



Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

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