Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, the first woman appointed to head the Supreme Court of Canada, spoke to a packed Bennett Lecture Hall about Canada’s experience with racism and the law, the topic of this year’s David B. Goodman Memorial Lecture.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlinIn “Racism and the Law: the Canadian Experience,” Chief Justice McLachlin stressed that the future of Canada hinged upon how it well the country deals with its diverse cultural makeup.

“We must have government and legal structures that recognize our diversity and allow us to live together in harmony and in a way that promotes the fullest possible contribution from all of our citizens, regardless of our race or background,” she said.

Chief Justice McLachlin also spoke about different eras in Canadian legal history, describing how Canadian law had regarded racial and cultural differences among its citizens, and how the law had evolved in that respect over the last 150 years.

She spoke of instances in which the law was used against racial minority groups, citing specific examples such as the confinement of Aboriginals to reserves, and the notorious head tax placed on immigrants.

“Over the past century and a half, Canadian attitudes on how the law should deal with racial and cultural differences have undergone an important evolution,” she said. “We have moved from the initial stance of allowing the law to actively or passively perpetuate inequality, through a transition period of equal opportunity and access, to a third period in which see the law as a tool to actively combat inequality and enhance substantive equality.”

She went on to say the country now recognizes that inequality marginalizes and distempers large sectors of the community, reinforces existing disadvantages, and fractures society into those who are accorded full human dignity and those who are denied it.