HALIFAX — Nova Scotia has appointed the first Mi'kmaq woman and the third black woman to the provincial and family courts, in what the province's premier calls a "huge step forward'' for ethnic diversity on the bench.
Legal aid lawyer Catherine Benton becomes only the third aboriginal judge in Nova Scotia, while Ronda van der Hoek, a public prosecutor, joins two other black women — Corinne Sparks and Jean Whalen — among the 73 full-time judges in the province.
Premier Stephen McNeil said in an interview the two new judges will provide added perspectives from the black and indigenous population in a court system that needs to reflect the makeup of the general population.
"I believe this is a huge step forward. They have had distinguished careers in making sure minority voices are being heard, that Mi'kmaq rights are being protected, and their cultures will be reflected in the decisions they make,'' he said.
Catherine BEnton and Ronda van der Hoek were appointed to provincial and family courts. (Photo: CP handout)
Benton is well known within legal circles as an advocate for racial and ethnic diversity in the courts, having pushed from the earliest days of her career for a stronger role for indigenous lawyers in the court system.
She worked as a researcher with the Union of Nova Scotia Indians and the Mi'kmaq Grand Council before getting her law degree from Dalhousie in 1993.
In 1994, Benton told the aboriginal publication Windspeaker she had made a series of fruitless job applications to firms around Atlantic Canada, with some partners telling her they felt her knowledge of aboriginal law wouldn't be an asset.
"I think it's important to establish an aboriginal justice network,'' she told the publication.
"We've been saying in the media there needs to be more diverse appointments and it appears that hasn't fallen on deaf ears."
Naiomi Metallic, a teacher specialized in indigenous law at Dalhousie's Schulich law school, says the appointments are being greeted with delight among advocates for greater indigenous and black representation in the legal system.
"I'm elated .... We've been saying in the media there needs to be more diverse appointments and it appears that hasn't fallen on deaf ears,'' she said.
Van der Hoek, from Windsor, has practised law for 19 years and also worked with Nova Scotia Legal Aid in Windsor and Halifax after graduating from Dalhousie Law School.
She is the third black judge in the province's lower and superior courts.
Closer to gender parity
Van der Hoek and Benton also bring the family and provincial courts a step closer to gender parity, with a total of 15 full-time female judges, compared to 20 full-time, male judges.
Robert Wright, a Halifax social worker who has been a member of provincial advisory committees for judicial selections, said the appointments are welcome.
But he cautions the justice system's treatment of racial minorities is still flawed, pointing to the release of police figures showing that black men were three times more likely to be street checked in Halifax in the first 10 months of 2016.
"Do (the appointments) demonstrate ... that the province clearly understands and is responsive and is completely on side with the issues of indigenous and African Nova Scotians? I would say no, we still have a long way to go,'' he said in interview.
However, McNeil said he intends to continue broadening diversity in both government and the courts.
"I look forward to continuing to make sure the institutions that matter, the judiciary and government, reflect who we are and that every Nova Scotian can see themselves in those institutions,'' he said.