Mahmud Jamal becomes the first person of colour appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada

OTTAWA — Justice Mahmud Jamal, the first person of colour named to the Supreme Court of Canada, underlined very clearly one perspective he brings to the job of top judge: the experience of confronting racial discrimination “as a fact of daily life” growing up.

“As a child and youth, I was taunted and harassed because of my name, religion, or the colour of my skin,” Jamal wrote in his application to move from the Ontario Court of Appeal to the country’s top court.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Jamal’s nomination Thursday to the high court to replace the retiring Rosalie Silberman Abella, the first refugee and first Jewish woman to sit on the court.

Jamal’s appointment breaks new judicial ground. His is a historic first for Canadians of colour who have never seen themselves represented on the Supreme Court of Canada but one that nonetheless reduces the number of female judges on the top court bench.

“I know that Justice Jamal, with his exceptional legal and academic experience and dedication to serving others, will be a valuable asset to our country’s highest court,” Trudeau said.

Born in Nairobi, Kenya to an Ismaili Muslim family originally from India, Jamal’s parents immigrated to England when he was two, where he attended Anglican schools.

“I was raised at school as a Christian, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and absorbing the values of the Church of England, and at home as a Muslim, memorizing Arabic prayers from the Quran and living as part of the Ismaili community,” he wrote in an essay as part of a questionnaire he filled out for the Supreme Court job.

“Like many others, I experienced discrimination as a fact of daily life.”

In a lengthy questionnaire that outlines a stellar career spanning 25 years, mostly as lawyer and legal scholar and for the past two years as a judge, Jamal sets out his qualifications, his life experience as a racialized person, his views on the role of a judge and what he brings to it — a litany that law professor Gerard Kennedy, a friend and former junior lawyer to Jamal, quipped “induces impostor syndrome” in anyone who reads it.

Trudeau made the announcement just an hour after Chief Justice Richard Wagner said it was important to see greater diversity on Canada’s courts, and that he hoped the gender balance would be maintained in the coming years.

Wagner later said he was very happy about Jamal’s appointment and noted another seat may become vacant with the pending retirement of Justice Michael Moldaver.

Jamal’s nomination was immediately hailed across the country by those who know him and call him a friend and mentor, by those who worked with him, or simply know about his accomplished career — one that spanned more than two decades in private practice at the Toronto firm of Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt before Trudeau named him to the Ontario appeal court in 2019.

Jamal’s family uprooted from England in 1981 when he was a young teenager, moving to Edmonton where he finished high school. “Our first few years here were hard. My parents struggled to make ends meet.”

He was the first in his family to go to university, attending the London School of Economics for a year before obtaining an economics degree from the University of Toronto. He earned a degree in common law and Quebec civil law at McGill University and a masters in law from Yale Law School.

It was while a student that Jamal says he took up what became a lifelong practice — unpaid work to help advance underprivileged individuals, frequently those experiencing discrimination, writing that he came to view it as a chance to “assist clients, to help shape the law, and perhaps to change societal attitudes. Over time, I represented clients that advanced the equality rights of Aboriginal Peoples, the civil liberties of all Canadians, and the rights of children.”

Jamal and his wife have two teenage sons. His wife Goleta arrived in Canada as a teenage refugee from Iran, from where her family fled the persecution of the Baha'i religious minority during the 1979 revolution. Jamal said she spent several years in the Philippines before her family settled in Innisfail, Alberta.

“After we married, I became a Baha'i, attracted by the faith’s message of the spiritual unity of humankind, and we raised our two children in Toronto’s multi-ethnic Baha'i community,” he wrote.

When Jamal joined Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt, he was the only racialized person in the litigation department of the large national law firm, he wrote. And later, he was only one of four racialized judges on the Ontario appeal bench — experiences that he wrote have shaped him and his perspective on life and the law.