October 5, 1912 – March 24, 1984
Bora Laskin was born in Fort William, Ont., now Thunder Bay. His Russian-immigrant parents instilled in him an appreciation of his Jewish heritage and passion for tolerance and justice. His first language was Yiddish, and he became a master of the Hebrew language.
Laskin earned bachelor and masters of arts degrees in 1933 and 1935 from the University of Toronto, a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1936, and a masters degree in law from Harvard University in 1937, but entrenched anti-Semitism in the legal profession prevented him from finding work when he returned to Toronto. Instead, he helped edit the Revised Statutes of Ontario and wrote headnotes for legal case reports. His experience with anti-Semitism reinforced Laskin’s commitment to justice and impartiality. It also steered him toward an academic career and, in the end, made Laskin Canada’s foremost lawyer and jurist although he never practiced law or argued a case in court.
Laskin taught at the University of Toronto from 1940 to 1945, at Osgoode Hall from 1945 to 1949, and again at the University of Toronto until 1965, contributing fundamentally to the University of Toronto’s reformulation as a professional law faculty, as commemorated in the Bora Laskin Law Library. Known affectionately as Moses the Law Giver, he earned renown as a brilliant scholar and inspiring teacher.
Laskin regarded the law as a flexible instrument for social justice, a view that permeated his legal writings as scholar and judge. He wrote six books, seven commission reports, and dozens of articles; his Canadian Constitutional Law (1951) was the standard text in Canadian law schools for a generation and his publications shaped Canadian jurisprudence in labour and constitutional law and civil liberties. While working as a professor, he gained prominence as a labour arbitrator, demonstrating a sense of fairness, impartiality and legal scholarship that foreshadowed his career as a judge. Committed to academic freedom, he helped found the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and served as president in 1964–1965. He also joined, and eventually chaired, the legal affairs committee of the Canadian Jewish Congress, preparing briefs and draft legislation that were instrumental in fashioning Canada’s human rights laws.
In 1965, he was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal, where he was a champion of civil liberties and frequently dissented from the majority of the court. His courage and integrity gained the attention of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who made Laskin his first appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1970—making him the first Jewish justice to sit on that court. Maintaining his role as the Great Dissenter, Laskin was appointed chief justice in 1973, creating controversy when he was leapfrogged over five more senior judges. Even as chief justice, Laskin was still frequently in dissent in a conservative court. Over time, the adoption of his positions by legislators, his growing influence on Canadian legal thought, and Trudeau’s appointment of more liberal judges allowed Laskin to turn the Supreme Court into a national institution and a creative force in promoting individual rights and legal equality.
Active in the larger community, Laskin served on the governing boards of several universities and among his many honours were the Order of Canada, appointment to the Royal Society of Canada, and 27 honorary degrees from universities in Canada, Britain, the United States, Israel and Italy.
Featured Photo: Bora Laskin, [1983 or 1984], Ottawa Jewish Archives, 1-588-05
Photo: Chief Justice Bora Laskin. Ottawa Jewish Archives. O0041. Ottawa Jewish Bulletin fonds (L-005).