Ontario becomes the first province to have two female chief justices with last Wednesday’s promotion of Justice Annemarie Erika Bonkalo to the top job at the Ontario Court of Justice.
Bonkalo is the first woman to lead the Ontario Court, becoming the second female chief justice in Ontario following Superior Court Chief Justice Heather Smith’s appointment in 2002.
The new chief has extensive judicial and administrative experience. She has been the associate chief justice of the Ontario Court since 2005.
She was first appointed to the provincial court bench in 1990, presiding in Brampton and Toronto. She has served as the local administrative judge at the College Park court in downtown Toronto and was appointed regional senior judge for the Toronto region in 2004. Bonkalo has sat on the Ontario Judicial Council, the Criminal and Family Rules Committee, the Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee, and various other committees.
“She has enjoyed a stellar career, accumulating nearly 30 years of legal and judicial experience and knowledge, which will serve her well as she takes on this significant appointment,” said Attorney General Michael Bryant in announcing Bonkalo’s appointment.
“I have very much enjoyed working with Justice Bonkalo in her different roles within the Ontario Court of Justice,” said Chief Justice Brian W. Lennox. “With her extensive judicial and administrative experience, she will serve the public and the justice system of Ontario well in her new role as chief justice.”
Louise Botham, head of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, says she looks forward to working with Bonkalo.
“She has a real interest in making the system work, both for those who appear and for the lawyers who work in it,” she told Law Times.
In addition, said Botham, the new chief justice is very supportive of the defence bar and of Crowns.
“Her appointment will be met well by the bar,” said James Morton, president of the Ontario Bar Association. “I think she’ll be a good chief justice.”
Veteran litigator Bill Trudell, who worked with Bonkalo on the Judicial Appointments Committee, called her appointment “enlightened.”
“Every defence counsel and probably every Crown will say it was a pleasure to appear before her,” he said.
Morton said the appointment of another female chief justice, “Serves as a reminder of how the world has changed and how the bench has become gender neutral.”
“Everybody who knows her knows she’s a very quiet, effective, decent, common-sense justice,” said Trudell. “Her appointment is a great recognition of women’s role in the judiciary.”
Bonkalo has done “very good work” as the associate chief justice and has a “big role to fill, but she can do it,” said Morton.
He also noted that the court touches everyone across the province and therefore it’s important to have a bilingual chief justice, which Bonkalo is.
Bonkalo takes over from Lennox, who completes his eight-year term on May 3.
Lennox leaves office having earned great respect and accolades from those in the legal profession.
“Lennox stood up for the Ontario Court of Justice. He really was a model chief. He was a fine judge; consistently fair, competent, and knowledgeable,” said Morton. “I know this sounds like a reference check but I think he was a very good chief justice.”
Morton said Lennox raised the profile and status of the Ontario Court and during his tenure high quality candidates flocked to fill the bench. The quality of judges has continuously improved from what it was when he started appearing in the provincial court in the early ’80s, said Morton.
Lawyers, who in previous years wouldn’t have even considered applying to sit on the provincial court bench, were prepared to put their names in to work in Lennox’s court, he said.
“Under Chief Justice Lennox’s term, seasoned litigators from all areas of the law applied and became judges in the Ontario Court of Justice,” he said. “They brought a lot of knowledge and enhanced the court.”
Bryant, too, had glowing words for the departing chief justice.
“I want to commend Chief Justice Lennox for his outstanding leadership, support and dedication to ensuring the justice system remains responsive to the needs of all Ontarians,” he said. “His career has been extraordinary. He is progressive, collaborative, and committed to legal education. His accomplishments are many and well known.”
Bonkalo received her law degree from Queen’s University law school and also holds a masters degree in criminology from the University of Toronto. She was called to the bar in 1978 and became an assistant Crown attorney in Brampton, where she prosecuted in all levels of court.
The Ministry of the Attorney General has not yet set a date for Bonkalo’s swearing in.