Rose Wolfe Distinguished Alumni Award 2019 Recipient: Justice Rosalie Abella


Please join me in congratulating this year’s Rose Wolfe
Distinguished Alumni Award recipient The Honourable Justice Abella. (Audience applauding) Well, welcome to my bar mitzvah. (audience laughing) This evening, to me, is a tribute
to two institutions I love. The first institution is Rose Wolfe. I met Rose Wolfe decades ago, and discovered that a “mensch”
was a gender-neutral term. When I first met her, she was
famous in the Jewish community for her organizational
genius, her philanthropy, her wisdom, her generosity. And when U of T came up
with the brilliant idea of making her Chancellor, she went from being the iconic woman
in the Jewish community, to being the bionic one in the U of T one. I never, ever met anyone who didn’t love
and admire Rose Wolfe for her warmth, passion for human rights, and commitment, unwavering commitment, to the people
and institutions she loved. So it’s a great honour to be here and be the recipient of this award. And Elizabeth, as legacies go, you were the legacy of whom
she was the most proud. And I’m very honoured to be able to share the Wolfe name with your family. So, thank you. (audience applauding) This is a year of anniversaries. It’s, as I sat down and
thought about what to say, about the second institution I love, the University of Toronto, I realized that it’s 55 years
since I started at University College, and the year I had
my first convocation at U of T when I graduated from the faculty
of the Royal Conservatory of Music. It’s almost 50 years since I
graduated from law school here, 50 years since I married the man
I met at the University of Toronto and chased for three years until
I wore him down so he would marry me. (audience laughing) That’s not a joke. Almost 30 years since
U of T made me a Doctor, thereby reifying every
Jewish mother’s dream of having a doctor and a lawyer. (audience laughing) And it’s 15 years since
they gave me my own room, and I am especially honoured, that I now for the first time have the chance to say thank
you to the Halbert family. This room was conceived by
Ron Daniels when he was Dean, and Roz and Ralph Halbert. Without them, this would
never have happened. Roz is here, and I would
like to pay public tribute for your generosity and
friendship over the years. Without you this room would not be here. So, thank you. (audience applauding) So, what about that
University of Toronto journey? When Thomas Wolfe said
“You can’t go home again,” he didn’t mean the University of Toronto. I prefer Dorothy’s sentiments
in “The Wizard of Oz” when she said, “There’s
no place like home.” And for me to come home,
to the University of Toronto as the recipient of the Rose Wolfe
Distinguished Alumnus Award, a home that allowed me as a young woman to luxuriate in the prospect
that anything was possible, a home that prepared me
so enthusiastically for the real world, is an honour even beyond
my own exaggerated hopes. I was at the University of
Toronto from 1964 to 1970. I was in history at University College, and in law at the Law School. I played piano for the UC Follies and met some newcomer
named Lorne Michaels. Whatever happened to Lorne Michaels? When I met him again many years later, I said, “You know, if
you’d followed my career “you could have been a
really interesting judge.” (audience laughing) Served on the UC Lit, was
on the Harvard Exchange, and helped in the organization of the University of Toronto teach-ins, that brought U of T
to the world’s attention, and Irving Abella to mine. In between, if memory serves, I think I went to a couple of classes. What was striking about the
period as I look back on it now was how like-minded everyone
I knew seemed to be. We all believed in the perfectibility
of the human condition, in progressive change, in excellence, in the symbiosis of reason and equity, and in our undisputed duty and right
to participate in all of the above. We were the kind of youthful
critics, when we did criticize, who felt that criticism carried
with it the responsibility to take ownership of the task of putting back together
that which we were taking apart. Absolutely nothing felt
beyond remedial attention. We were amateurs in cynicism, and genuinely believed
that the joint application of talent and hard work
would open any door. To us, there was to
paraphrase Truman Capote, only two great sins: boredom, and even worse, being a bore. We saw rainbows, not garbage,
when we looked at the canals of Venice, and as romantics were impatient
at the gap between reality and the ideal. And because we had an
answer for everything, the right answer, and held firm and sincere beliefs as to which end of the spectrum to invoke
in declaring affiliation with truth, we graduated positive, hopeful, feisty
and somewhat ingenuous. There was more zeal than wisdom
in our zealous youthful wisdom, but at least there was zeal. I now know that the
answer to most questions is closer to the spectrum’s gray
than it is to black and white. And find myself
in the paradoxical position of feeling that the more I know,
and the longer I judge, the less judgemental I am. I have come to understand
that the function of a good education is not to learn all the right answers,
but to learn all the right questions. To go from the confidence
of youth’s certainty to the confidence of adult ambiguity is one of life’s more humbling journeys. But along the way to
acquiring more humility, I think we also acquire more judgment. When I started practicing
law in the early ’70s, I didn’t know what feminism
meant, let alone how to be one. Having come from
a strongly encouraging home and from a university environment
where the objective barometer was marks, I’m embarrassed to tell you
that I never questioned whether there were objective barriers
to subjective ambitions. I never wondered
why there were only five women in my law school class of 150 students. Why some women worked for pay,
and some worked at home for none. Why people considered the phrase
“women professionals” to be an oxymoron. Or why women were support staff,
and men were the support. It just was. And then I had clients. Clients who told me
what the novels I loved to read could not. About dependency,
disadvantage and despair. And so I learned to shed the orthodoxies
and certainties of adolescence, and to listen, and reappraise. I learned not to give
work-life balance interviews to a public newly mesmerized by the apparent ease of
professionally successful women, but historically indifferent
to the real superwomen, who for generations
had juggled jobs, family and guilt without the benefit of housekeepers, financial security, or media curiosity. I learned that the unspoken
words of discouragement could be as thunderously
inhibiting as the articulated ones. And I learned to take nothing for granted. In the generation since my graduating
from this great university in 1970, I have seen among other things
a Charter of Rights and Freedoms promulgated and extolled
as the supreme law of the land, a revolution in expectation
by and between men and women, a request by this country’s minorities, Indigenous people,
those with disabilities, and those with different
linguistic and sexual identities for a revised social
contract and consciousness. And a transitional urge simultaneously to retain the relevant values
and discard the inhibiting ones. And while I have seen
a discouraging, albeit explicable backlash to these changes, I have also seen more progress than such rapid change in one generation
would entitle us to expect. I remain fully optimistic that with the commitment and contribution
of the intellectual samurai universities
like the University of Toronto routinely produce, the change will continue,
and continue in the right direction. And that one generation from now, the restless transition
that has been my generation will evolve into the settled
and more secure opportunities of the next one. Many of you have had the good fortune to have had lives which represent
the unfolding of the happily expected. This, I hope, will be the life
of my children and grandchildren. But from the beginning of my life, as someone who was born to
survivors of the Holocaust in a refugee camp in Stuttgart, Germany, on July 1 1946, there was nothing expected,
and everything hoped for. So standing here today with this award from the university
that launched me into adulthood, in a room that bears my name, feels almost surreal. Thank you, U of T, thank you, Rose Wolfe, and thank all of you for making possible and sharing
this incredible journey with me. Thank you. (audience applauding)

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