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Canada's newest Supreme Court justice embraces an 'abiding belief in pluralism'

OTTAWA — The newest member of Canada's highest court says the only unifying principle that seems to stitch his life together is an abiding belief in pluralism.

OTTAWA — The newest member of Canada's highest court says the only unifying principle that seems to stitch his life together is an abiding belief in pluralism.

Justice Mahmud Jamal, the first person of colour to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada, says that means faith in the inherent value of the diversity that is a hallmark of Canada.

Jamal was welcomed by a parade of legal luminaries in a ceremony at the court Thursday, though he was officially sworn in at a private event on Canada Day.

They praised his tireless work ethic, collegiality, modesty and efforts to advance the equality rights of Indigenous Peoples, access to justice and the rights of children.

The other eight members of the court were present, but due to COVID-19 precautions, many of Jamal's family members and friends had to witness the ceremony virtually.

Born in 1967 in Nairobi, Kenya, to a family originally from India, Jamal moved two years later to Britain. In 1981, the family came to Canada, settling in Edmonton, where Jamal completed high school.

Jamal's wife also arrived in Canada as a teenager, a refugee from Iran fleeing the persecution of the Baha'i religious minority during the 1979 Revolution.

After they married, Jamal became a Baha'i, attracted by the faith's message of the spiritual unity of humankind, and the couple raised their two children in Toronto’s multi-ethnic Baha'i community.

"My family's experience is shared by so many new Canadians, including members of this court, who have moved from country to country in search of a better life," Jamal told the gathering Thursday.

"I am particularly touched by the outpouring of support for my appointment from Canadians across the country, even though I must say it has surprised me at times.

"I know that for many people, my appointment adds another form of diversity to the Supreme Court. I am fully aware that this office carries with it an enormous responsibility, which I am very honoured to accept. And I want you to know that I will make every effort to do so."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Jamal to replace retiring judge Rosalie Abella.

Jamal called Abella a "judicial icon" who served with extraordinary distinction during her 17 years on the court.

"After I was appointed, Rosie told me that I would soon learn what it is to have a Jewish mother. She was right," Jamal said.

"As someone with an Indian Muslim mother and an Iranian Baha’i mother-in-law, I am absolutely delighted to have Rosie among my circle of multicultural maternal figures."

Jamal said he was sometimes daunted by the scale of what lies ahead.

"If I begin to feel overwhelmed, however, I remind myself that the judicial role is simply to decide one case at a time based on the law and the evidence with no larger plan or agenda," he said.

"I hope that the judicial oath that I took on July 1 will spur me to give back to the country that welcomed my family, and which has given me so many opportunities to learn and to grow."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2021.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press