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Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella denounces ‘narcissistic populism’

Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella (centre) joined SCC Justices Russell Brown (left) and Michael Moldaver (right) to preside over the Grand Moot event held at U of T's Faculty of Law in 2016 (photo by Holly Sherlock)

Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella, alumna of University College and U of T's Faculty of Law, denounced “narcissistic populism” during a commencement speech in the United States this weekend that made headlines here at home.

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After accepting an honorary degree from Brandeis University in Massachusetts, Abella spoke to graduates. Abella, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, was born in a refugee camp in Germany. She suggested that the lessons of the Second World War have been lost in a world where “narcissistic populism” and disregard for human rights, courts, free press and democratic norms are increasingly common – and said she was “deeply worried” about the state of justice in the world today.

While she did not name anyone, many wondered whether Abella was referring to U.S. President Donald Trump. 

“Here we are in 2017, barely seven decades later, watching ‘never again’ turn into ‘again and again,’ and watching that wonderful democratic consensus fragment, shattered by narcissistic populism, an unhealthy tolerance for intolerance, a cavalier indifference to equality,” she said during the commencement speech.

The first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, Abella also said that there was “a shocking disrespect for the borders between power and its independent adjudicators like the press and the courts.”

She warned that it was time to remind ourselves of the lessons from the Second World War: “Indifference is injustice’s incubator; it’s not just what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for; and we can never forget how the world looks to those who are vulnerable.”

Last year, Abella became the first Canadian woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale Law School, where she delivered similarly frank and stirring remarks about democracy and justice.

“In these frenetically fluid, intellectually sclerotic, economically narcissistic, ideologically polarized, and rhetorically tempestuous times — a world that too often feels like it's spinning out of control — we need a legal profession that worries about what the world looks and feels like to those who are vulnerable,” Abella told the Yale Law grads.

Democracies and their laws represent the best possiblity of justice, Abella said, in a speech that brought the grads to tears.

“Lawyers are the people that have the duty to make that justice happen, the duty to do everything humanly possible to make the world safer for our children than it was for their grandparents, so that all children regardless of race, religion or gender can wear their identities with pride – in dignity and in peace.”

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