Bertha Wilson

First woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada

Born: 18 September 1923 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland
Died: 28 April 2007 at Rideau Place on-the-River in Ottawa

Bertha Wernham grew up in a working-class family in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. She received a masters degree from the University of Aberdeen in 1944 and earned a teaching certificate from the Training College for Teachers before marrying Rev. John Wilson, a Presbyterian minister. The Wilsons came to Canada in 1949 and made their home in Renfrew, Ontario.

By 1955, the Wilsons were living in Halifax and Bertha decided to enroll in Dalhousie University's law school. She graduated near the top of the class in 1957 and was called to the Nova Scotia bar that same year. She and her husband moved to Toronto where she was called to the Ontario bar in 1959 and was the first woman hired by the firm of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt. In 1968, Wilson became the first woman partner of that law firm, where she worked for 16 years.

In 1975, Wilson was the first woman appointed to Ontario's Court of Appeal. Seven years later on 30 March 1982, she became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Justice Wilson was influential in defending the rights of women and refugees. Her many cases included R. v. Lavallee which created the battered woman's defence and R. v. Morgentaler, in which she stated that limiting access to an abortion violated a woman's “right to life, liberty and security of the person [...] in a way which does not accord with the principles of fundamental justice.”

Bertha Wilson retired from the Supreme Court on 4 January 1991. She was appointed to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People and chaired the Canadian Bar Association's Task Force on Women in the Legal Profession. She was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1991 and appointed to the Order of Canada as a Companion in 1992.

Bertha Wilson died on 28 April 2007 of Alzheimer's disease. She was 83.

More information:

Profile and photo at the Supreme Court of Canada website.


By Name · W
By Province · Ontario
By Claim to Fame · Law & Politics · Firsts
Group(s) · Women

Added 19 May 2007.