Strengthening communities: Sheila Ray helps make the justice system fairer and more supportive
By Mark Campbell
As the first South Asian Canadian woman appointed to the bench in Ontario, Justice Sheila Ray (BA’77, LLB’80) has made progress through her decisions, articles, speaking and volunteer activities. She’s reshaping the justice system, and doing so in ways that support those who’ve experienced adversity.
After considering all the evidence in a case she heard, Justice Sheila Ray knew that the Crown had not proven an element of the offence with which the individual standing before her in court had been charged, and that they also needed help. This person had lost their job and home due to mental illness and had been charged with mischief after several incidents of sleeping in the restroom of a Toronto university. Dismissing the charge would not solve the problems that led to them sleeping in the washroom and could easily lead to the behaviour repeating itself.
“I went to the local Salvation Army office in my robe and explained the situation to the chaplain, who came back to the courtroom with me,” she recalls. “I dismissed the charge and introduced the individual to the chaplain. Not only did the Salvation Army find accommodation and get the individual back on their medication, but once they recovered, they went to city hall with a petition calling for better access to mental wellness care for the homeless. I spotted them outside of city hall holding a sign and asking people to sign the petition.”
Seeking opportunities to make a difference
It is a story that gives Justice Ray considerable joy, and the first one that comes to mind when asked about her efforts to create a more fair and equitable justice system. “I became a lawyer and then a judge because it gives you a lot of opportunities to make a difference not only through the work you do in court but also through the doors it opens for you to do that in the community.”
The desire to make a difference was shaped in part by the experiences of Justice Ray’s parents. Her father, a surgeon, faced systemic racism after the family relocated to Nova Scotia from Nigeria. Her mother was dissuaded from becoming a surgeon by gender and cultural barriers. In Justice Ray’s eyes, the justice system offered an opportunity to redress these wrongs. Further impetus to be an agent of change came from her studies, both through the gender biases she encountered as a law student and through the student union events that highlighted the impacts of segregation and racism on African and Indigenous Nova Scotians.
“Although I have experienced some unfairness, it was less than that of other people,” she says. “I had people in my life who were very supportive and helpful. That enabled me to do well and, as a result, give back.”
Advocating for inclusion
Justice Ray has achieved impactful change in many ways in the legal system. As the first South Asian Canadian woman appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice, she has been a role model for many racialized individuals wanting to enter the field. Through her legal decisions and writing, she has advanced concepts such as restorative justice. As a speaker and lecturer, she has inspired youth from all walks to make the profession more reflective of Canadian society. And her contribution to the growth of the law affecting women’s rights, French language rights, Indigenous peoples’ rights, and access to mental wellness and substance-abuse supports have helped reduce the marginalization and discrimination of thousands of Canadians.
At the same time, Justice Ray has been active beyond the courts. She’s addressed food insecurity during the pandemic and worked with international and resettlement organizations to assist women judges in undemocratic countries. “It’s all about reaching out wherever I can to make a difference, and not waiting for someone to ask,” she says. “Every day there is something else I can do…in my Jewish faith there is the concept of tikkun olam—repairing the world. You have to contribute to that. This [Aurum] award is a reminder to keep doing that.”
Lifelong learner and role model
Justice Ray is embarking on a new journey. She is earning her PhD so she will have the additional knowledge and skills necessary to educate a new generation of lawyers now and upon her mandatory retirement from the bench. That degree may also empower her to write more articles that advance legal knowledge and, potentially, advance ideas for law reform. But for all her efforts to enhance the legal system, she believes being a parent is the most important thing she has done.
“I have a son and he is wonderful,” she says. “Every day, he does a mitzvah, or kindness, and he’s going to continue to make the world better.”
In that way, as in so many others, Justice Ray has created a legacy that will continue to make a difference for years to come.