A significant legal figure who had a profound influence on the history of Canadian law, the Honourable Justice Julius Isaac served in many important roles, including as a judge of the Supreme Court of Ontario and as a chief justice of the Federal Court of Canada—the first Person of Colour to be appointed to that bench.
Born in 1928 in Grenada, Isaac immigrated to Canada in 1951 to begin his undergraduate studies and went on to start his law degree at the University of Toronto in 1955 — a time when systemic barriers meant that he was one of the extremely few Black law students in the entire country. He was called to the Ontario bar in 1960, and he practiced law in Ontario and Saskatchewan for several years before joining the Department of Justice in 1971. He was given the designation of “Queen’s Counsel” in 1975 and was appointed to the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1989. Two years later, he was appointed to the Federal Court, where he served as chief justice for close to eight years until his retirement in 1999, after which time he was appointed to the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada.
In 2001 and 2002, he became one of three commissioners of the West Kingston Commission of Inquiry in Jamaica, an inquiry into political corruption and violence. It may seem odd for a Canadian jurist be given such a responsibility in Jamaica, but since Isaac was born in Grenada, another Caribbean island nation, and remained active within the Caribbean community in Canada throughout his life, he was able to approach the Commission of Inquiry from a place of knowledge and experience. According to a report in the Jamaica Observer, the Grenada Bar Association stated: “Justice Isaac symbolises the highest qualities of the legal profession and his enviable achievements speak volumes of his character, integrity, competence, eminence, brilliance, professionalism, hard work, discipline and fearless adherence to, and respect for the rule of law.”
Justice Isaac was indeed a remarkable jurist and a remarkable person. He was deeply invested in reforming immigration law since his time as a student, served as co-chair of the Black studies program at Dalhousie University, was the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2006. In 2011, he passed away just two days before his eighty-third birthday. His lasting influence has been honoured by the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, which established a scholarship in his name for Black students studying at the University of Windsor.
Carol Brennan, “Isaac, Julius 1928–” encyclopedia.com, online: www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/isaac-julius-1928.
Dawn Williams, “Who’s Who in Black Canada: Black Success and Black Excellence in Canada: A Contemporary Directory, 2002” (Toronto: D.P. Williams, 2002).
Galit Rodan, “Canada’s First Black Chief Justice Dies” Toronto Star (20 July 2011), online: www.thestar.com/news/canada/2011/07/20/canadas_first_black_chief_justice_dies.html.
“Julius Isaac ‘Has Left Incredible Mark on Legal History’” Ron Fanfair (7 January 2017), online: www.ronfanfair.com/home/2017/1/7/julius-issac-has-left-incredible-mark-on-legal-history.
Heather Gardiner, “A Black Legal Luminary” Canadian Lawyer (17 October 2011), online: www.canadianlawyermag.com/news/general/a-black-legal-luminary/268372