Louise Arbour

is a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the chief prosecutor who indicted then-Serbian President Milošević for his crimes against humanity.

“Law Can Take You Anywhere if You Can Get Through It” - Louise Arbour


Louise Arbour discusses her personal journey to becoming a lawyer.

Louise Arbour: There are no jurists in my family. I don't come from a family of judges, lawyers, or anything like that. When you finished your classical education in those days, you went into medicine. For me, that was out of the question. I was no good at it, didn't like science at all. Into law, technically, maybe architecture or engineering, but girls were not part of that culture, no one thought about that. So, the most common pathway was to go to Teachers College and learn to teach, or do a Master's in something like history. I think there were two of us in my class who went into law and two or three who went into medicine. I went to law school. I didn't know much about it. To me, it was the continuation of a general education. I was very interested in journalism and public affairs. I'm not even sure there were journalism schools back then, but they used to say, "Law can take you anywhere, if you can get through it." To me, it was just about continuing my studies, especially when it came to matters of public interest. I wasn't at all interested in business law. I was never interested in that aspect of law.

Generous Nationalism - Louise Arbour

3 min 10 s

Louise Arbour reflects on her experience working in the former Yugoslavia and witnessing the patholo...

Louise Arbour: Feminism and women's rights were so ingrained in my life that I think it took me a while to express these views in kind of an activist way, because... as I was saying, I was raised in an environment... I was raised by women, with women. It was like... the competence of women, was so obvious to me, that it was only later that I became more aware that this wasn't the case for everyone, that not everyone saw it that way. That, too, continued to... to keep me interested and involved. I guess because of my education, it wasn't obvious. When I was young, because I learned English quite late... I mentioned how I started in a francophone Quebec, where I was deeply rooted in French literature and didn't speak English, and ended up in professional environments in Ontario, where I was certainly welcomed with open arms, but... the depth of the culture shock was a big surprise for me. And, at least in those days, my whole vision of nationalism, as for many Québécois of my generation, was a very romantic one. We experienced a type of nationalism expressed by our poets, artists and songwriters. A "Gilles Vigneault" kind of nationalism, where my country is open to everyone. A generous, open nationalism. Then, I ended up in Yugoslavia and saw how pathological nationalism can be. This was a revelation to me, and a very profound one. Very profound. In some ways... it overturned some deeply ingrained concepts that I was sure were right. They were rooted in my upbringing and my personality. Then, all of a sudden... That's why I think I was lucky, because I saw very different things. I saw worlds that were turned upside-down. That's why I'm not exactly fazed by the ambiguity we're living in today. I think we're living in a very messy world. We have many doctrines that are no longer very useful, that are tired. I find our leadership at the international level quite frankly, mediocre. If we only produce one Nelson Mandela per century, we're not going to get very far, very fast. I think we're going through a bit of a rough patch. But that doesn't prevent me from staying optimistic because I feel like I've seen that often, these revelations and reversals that allow us to see things differently.

Teaching at Osgoode Hall Law School - Louise . . .

2 min 14 s

Louise Arbour talks about her teaching career and the initial obstacles she faced at York University...

Louise Arbour: When I was a law clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada, deans from certain law schools, such as McGill and Osgoode Hall, came to the Supreme Court and tried to recruit the clerks. The court clerks... I had very good grades in law school, much better than during my previous schooling. It was clear that the law was for me. It was truly the perfect fit. So, they came to see the Supreme Court clerks because they knew these people would be academically inclined. That's when I met Harry Arthurs, who was then Dean of Osgoode Hall. A combination of circumstances led me to stay in Ontario. I met someone. It happens often that certain events cause a change of plan. He initially offered me a part-time teaching job at Osgoode. So... I was very hesitant, because even then, I didn't speak English. I didn't think my English was good enough to teach. It's really interesting. Looking back, I think, "If an Anglophone had come to Université de Montréal and taught a course in French and spoke French as poorly as I did English at the time they would have had a very hard time." Anyway, I plucked up my courage and said yes, but the reaction was not what I expected. I was extremely well received by my colleagues and especially my students. First of all, I was almost the same age. I must have been around 23-24-25 years old. So I wasn't much older than my students, and that was kind of unusual. There was another woman who started around the same time, Mary Jane Mossman, who's still there, I believe. There were no women. And the only other Francophone was a Frenchman named Jean-Gabriel Castel. People who spoke like me or looked like me — there weren't any. But it went very well. In the end, I got a full-time teaching job, and I stayed there for 12 years.

The Chief Prosecutor at the Hague - Louise . . .

2 min 42 s

Louise Arbour talks about the unexpected chain of events that led to her appointment as the Chief Pr...

Louise Arbour: Actually, it's the same thing. The story of my life is a ringing telephone. I know that's not how it is anymore, because there are procedures for everything. But when I was a judge, before the Commission of Inquiry when I was at the Court of Appeal, one of my colleagues asked me to replace him at a conference in South Africa. I'd never been to Africa, I had small children, it was during the summer, and I really didn't want to go. At that time Canada had sanctions, and Apartheid was still in effect. I'd say it was around 1989. In the end, he convinced me. He said, "It's a meeting of South African judges and lawyers who are starting to think about what the South African constitution should be when Apartheid ends, and what the new South Africa should look like." So... I went, and at that conference, I met a judge whose name was Richard Goldstone. A year or two later, I heard he'd been appointed prosecutor for the war crimes of the former Yugoslavia. I taught criminal law. The idea of starting to do international criminal law was revolutionary. And out of the blue, he called me. He said, "I'm coming to Canada." I said, "You've got to tell me. What are you doing? Is it like the Nuremberg trials? You've got to explain it to me. It's so interesting." He came to Canada with his wife, and we had dinner together. During the meal, he told me, "I can't keep going. I need to go back to South Africa." At that point, he was a member of the Constitutional Court. He'd only been in The Hague for about a year and a half. He said, "I need to give the Secretary-General of the United Nations some names of people who could replace me." In the meantime, he'd "inherited" the Tribunal for Rwanda. It started with the former Yugoslavia, then the Security Council, and he said, "Rwanda is very francophone. You'd be the perfect person since you're bilingual and you know criminal law." I said, "I'm not familiar with that, with laws of war and the 'Geneva Conventions.'" "Yes, yes. Can I give them your name?" I was convinced it was impossible. I didn't know a single person in the Department of External Affairs. "Sure, you can give my name." And there you have it. I got a phone call from the Secretary-General of the United Nations And... I went.

A Trailblazer for Future Generations - Louise . . .

2 min 13 s

Louise Arbour reflects on her career and how it paved the way for future generations of lawyers and ...

Louise Arbour: The Canadians who will remember are the law students. I was at the Supreme Court for only five years but I see them, I meet them at my office. I see them studying things I wrote. It's quite surprising, because that part of my career wasn't exactly the most publicized. That's the case for any judge, but it surprises me every time. It's as if I've forgotten it. Not that part, but the fact that it exists. Still, it won't last forever. With decisions, after 20 years people move on. I don't know. I think, and I hear it often, that I've had a professional career that had a certain degree of exposure during a transitional time for women. Young women often say to me, "I'd love to have a career like yours." I'm very aware that women of my generation didn't have other women to say that to. We could say it to a man, but that wasn't always easy. We didn't have role models. I hope that my impact... I won't have a historical impact that lasts forever, but I hope to have had an impact in that the women of my generation who worked in public, semi-public or professional fields, our impact on these young women who are 10, 20 or 30 years behind us, and even my granddaughter. I see these young professionals, particularly in law, but in other disciplines as well, It makes me very happy. And I think it's because I was part of a transitional time when the world opened up for women. Well, not that the world opened up. We had to push for it. And we're not finished. Yes, I think that this... this is important to me.