Justice Sandra Nishikawa on imagination, identity, and reconciliation at swearing-in speech

Posted: 03/02/2018

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In a heartfelt, expansive speech that was at turns personal and philosophical, Justice Sandra Nishikawa spoke about the winding journey and her network of support on her way to becoming a judge of Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice.

She was formally appointed as a judge on January 19, 2018. The swearing-in ceremony took place on February 15.

Prior to her appointment, Justice Nishikawa was counsel at the Ontario Human Rights Commission. She was elected as a bencher to the Law Society in 2015, and served as Vice-Chair of the Equity and Indigenous Affairs Committee.

Justice Nishikawa began her speech by acknowledging the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of New Credit. She then congratulated the outgoing Justice Todd Archibald, whose post she will now be occupying, on becoming supernumerary.

“There is a part of me that still cannot believe this is happening,” Justice Nishikawa said in her remarks. “Becoming a judge far exceeds anything I could have dreamed of, or imagined for myself.”

This sense of awe mixed with a recognition of the unlikeliness of her career path were consistent themes in her speech.

Some kids are told they can be anything. They dream of becoming professional athletes, astronauts or entrepreneurs.  Growing up in a working class, largely immigrant neighbourhood in Rexdale, however, I was never burdened by this overwhelming idea.

I was raised with more down-to-earth aspirations.  I was taught that I would have to get a good, secure job to provide for myself and my family and not be a burden on society. Getting an education was the key. Unlike my parents who grew up in post-war Japan and didn’t have the opportunity to pursue higher education, I had the benefit of being educated in this country and a family that could afford university.  Early suggestions included teacher or pharmacist.

She touched on how her identity as a visible minority, Japanese Canadian woman shaped her experiences and perspectives, and influenced the areas of law—inclusion and equity—that she focused on.

Though I didn’t think of it this way at the time, I wonder if my inherent awareness of the tragedy of being limited, not by ability, but by circumstances and barriers beyond your control, and the resulting loss to society, that I gravitated toward enhancing equity and inclusion in the legal profession.

It’s by engaging in this work that I met the people who have been most influential to my career, and that I’ve experienced the best that the legal profession has to offer.  We imagined and worked toward a more inclusive legal profession as a means of enhancing meaningful access to justice for all.

In acknowledging the impact and importance of her upbringing and her sense of identity, Justice Nishikawa made reference to the impact of colonization on the Indigenous peoples in Canada, indicating perhaps how she might continue her work on Indigenous issues within the Canadian justice system

I have only come to this awareness as I learned, much too late in my life, and continue to learn, about the wholesale denial and erasure of Indigenous culture from Indigenous children and peoples.  To have the security and confidence of family and culture is of immeasurable worth, to be deprived of them of incalculable harm.  The imperative of reconciliation, is that we must all do our part to restore this to Indigenous peoples.

Justice Nishikawa’s speech featured heartfelt gratitude to friends, colleagues, mentors, family members, and especially her parents. Paul Schabas, Treasurer of the Law Society, Benchers Julian Falconer and Raj Anand, and Emeritus Bencher Beth Symes received special acknowledgement. Bencher Dianne Corbiere was her personal speaker at the ceremony, and was lauded as someone who “challenge[s] us to think about justice in new ways and patiently wait[s] for the rest of us to get caught up.”

She concluded her remarks by reiterating the power of imagination, and why it matters in the legal profession.

Perhaps this exercise of imagination bears some relevance to the evolution of the law and our justice system, which evolves incrementally, over time, with experience, insight and occasionally, imagination.  All the better to enhance equality, access to justice and reconciliation for all the people of Ontario.

Read the full text of the speech here (pdf).