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Bora Laskin

LASKIN, BORA (1912–1984), Canadian legal scholar, teacher, labor arbitrator, jurist. Laskin was born in Fort William, Ontario (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. He earned his B.A. (1933) and M.A. (1935) from the University of Toronto, and a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto (1936), standing at the head of his class. He maintained this rank at Harvard, where he earned a Masters in Law (1937), but when he returned to Toronto, entrenched antisemitism in the legal profession prevented him from finding a legal position. Instead he helped edit the Revised Statutes of Ontario and wrote headnotes for legal case reports. His experience with antisemitism reinforced Laskin's commitment to justice and impartiality. It also steered him away from private practice and toward an academic career and, in the end, made Laskin Canada's foremost lawyer and jurist without ever having 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 which permeated his legal writings as scholar and judge. He wrote six books, seven commission reports, and dozens of learned articles; his Canadian Constitutional Law (1951) was the standard text in Canadian law schools for a generation and his publications shaped Canadian jurisprudence in labor and constitutional law and civil liberties. While a professor he also gained prominence as a labor 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, becoming its president in 1964–65. 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, and the first Jew on Canada's highest court. Maintaining his role as "the Great Dissenter," Laskin was appointed chief justice in December 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 honors 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. His death in 1984 prevented him from participating in jurisprudence under the new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but his prior judgments and writings left a legacy that would be reflected in subsequent Charter decisions. His career demonstrates the transformation not only of Canadian law but of Canadian society from the prejudices and restrictions of the 1930s toward egalitarian and multicultural maturity.


P. Girard, Bora Laskin: Bringing Law to Life (2005).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.