Trailblazers in Canadian Legal History: Justice Harvey Brownstone

Harvey Brownstone, Canada’s first openly gay judge

The Honorable Harvey Brownstone was born in Paris, France, in 1956 and grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, where his father was the director of the Hamilton Jewish Community Centre and his mother owned a highly successful clothing line. He attained his law degree from the Queen’s University and was called to the Ontario bar in 1983. From a young age, Brownstone had a keen interest in family law and felt a strong desire to protect the vulnerable. “I’m disappointed that the criminal justice system is used as a dumping ground for mentally ill people and addicts,” he said in an interview.

Brownstone joined the Research Facility of the Ontario Legal Aid Plan in 1987, becoming the head of the Family Law section. Two year later, he joined the Ministry of the Attorney General as counsel for the Support and Custody Enforcement Branch, and in 1991 he was made legal director of the Family Support Plan. One year later he was appointed full director of the program. In that role, Brownstone was responsible for two important child support and alimony enforcement tools — support deduction orders (or automatic wage deduction) and the suspension of defaulting support payors’ drivers’ licences. The two support enforcements were highly effective in Ontario and soon spread to other provinces. Brownstone was appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice in 1995, where he presided in criminal court and family court in Toronto and Niagara for over two decades.  

“I’m disappointed that the criminal justice system is used as a dumping ground for mentally ill people and addicts”

As the first openly gay judge in Canada, Brownstone has had a hugely positive influence on the queer community. Same-sex marriage was not legalized in Canada until 2003, and when it finally was, Brownstone became the only judge to make himself publicly available to officiate weddings for same-sex couples. People travelled to Toronto from all across the country and even the world to get married — including prominent activist Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, a US couple whose marriage, officiated by Brownstone, led to the United States Supreme Court finally changing the constitutional definition of “spouse” to include same-sex partners.  

“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay judge in Canada,” he said in an interview. “I never hid who I was. I never announced it, but I never hid it either. I was just me.” 

Brownstone retired from the judiciary on 31 December 2021, after serving as a judge for over twenty-six years. Already a best-selling author, he now spends his time running an interview channel, launched in February 2021. The interviews, conducted over Zoom, are hosted on his website and available on other platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, and Spotify. Though no longer working as a judge, Brownstone continues to teach, inspire, and spread awareness throughout Canada and the world.  


Alison Langley, “Harvey Brownstone, the First Openly Gay Judge in Canada, Retired in December After a Law Career that Spanned Almost 27 Years in Toronto and Niagara” The Standard (20 January 2022), online: 

“Harvey Brownstone,” Wikipedia, online: 

Harvey Brownstone Interviews, “About,” online: 

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Harvey Brownstone Interviews, “Home,” online: .

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