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Feb 24, 2022
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Small image of Justice Corrine SparksJustice Corrine Sparks contributed to substantive diversity in the justice system through her willingness to be receptive and attuned to the experiences of racialized members of her community and to reflect such experience in her reasons. [1] Sparks has had a career of “firsts”: first in her family to attend university, establishing the first all-female law firm in Nova Scotia, and becoming the first Black judge in Nova Scotia and the first Black woman to serve on the bench in Canada. These accomplishments led her to another milestone in her legacy: her decision in R. v. S (R.D.), a case which ultimately required the Supreme Court of Canada to grapple with Sparks’ comments in the decision on the reality of anti-Black racism in Nova Scotia.

Sparks grew up in the historically racially segregated community of Lake Loon, Nova Scotia, outside of Halifax. Interested in human rights from a young age, Sparks obtained a summer job at the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission after earning her undergraduate degree, where she investigated complaints under the Human Rights Act. She was inspired while completing this work to apply to law school and later graduated from Dalhousie Law School in 1979.

Sparks’ career has been fueled by her dedication to human rights, once saying that she “became deeply interested in the law and how the law could be utilized as a tool to ameliorate the social injustices in our community, but also in the broader community.”[2] She initially did this work in the area of family law, joining her former law school colleague Helen Foote in 1981 to create the first all-female law firm in Nova Scotia.  

Sparks was subsequently appointed to the Nova Scotia Family Court bench in 1987, becoming the first Black judge in Nova Scotia and the first Black female judge to be appointed in Canada. She has called this aspect of her legacy a “huge responsibility”[3] but one that she embraced, commenting, “I welcomed the opportunity to serve at the judicial level and knew my appointment would be monumental, especially for African Nova Scotians”.[4]

Sparks continued her work in human rights when, in 1993, she served on the Canadian Bar Association’s Gender Equality Task Force. The Task Force worked for two years and ultimately published a report on the state of gender equity in the legal profession in Canada, leading to a number of initiatives within the CBA to identify and attempt to find solutions for systemic gender and diversity problems within the legal profession.[5]

In 1995, Justice Sparks heard the case of R. v. S (R.D.), in which police arrested a 15-year-old Black teenager for allegedly interfering with the arrest of another teenager. Rodney Small later identified himself as the accused in the case. Small was initially charged with numerous offences including assaulting a police officer, assaulting a police officer with the intention of preventing an arrest and resisting arrest. The white police officer in question reported that Small hit him with his bicycle while another officer was attempting to arrest the other teenager. Small denied having done so, stating that he merely stopped in front of the police officer to ask if his cousin, who was being arrested, was okay. Small was represented in the case by Rocky Jones, a Black lawyer and activist who spent much of his life advocating for Black and Indigenous Canadians in the areas of human rights, race and poverty and prisoners’ rights.

At the conclusion of trial Sparks found Small not guilty. In the course of her judgement, Sparks said:

The Crown says, well, why would the officer say that events occurred the way in which he has relayed them to the Court this morning. I am not saying that the Constable has misled the court, although police officers have been known to do that in the past. I am not saying that the officer overreacted, but certainly police officers do overreact, particularly when they are dealing with non-white groups. That to me indicates a state of mind right there that is questionable. I believe that probably the situation in this particular case is the case of a young police officer who overreacted. I do accept the evidence of [R.D.S.] that he was told to shut up or he would be under arrest. It seems to be in keeping with the prevalent attitude of the day.

The Crown appealed Sparks’ decision, taking the position that her comments gave rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias. The appeal was initially successful, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal finding in favour of the Crown’s argument.

The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court, and in 1997 a majority of the Court upheld Sparks’ decision.

As part of a discussion of judicial neutrality and impartiality, the Court recognized that judges come to the bench from a variety of backgrounds, and that they are not required “to discount the very life experiences that may so well qualify them to preside over disputes”.[6] The majority further stated that good judges will take these personal and professional experiences and “apply [them] with sensitivity and compassion to the cases that they must hear.”[7] Further, the majority recognized that the proper application of the social context of a case can help the law evolve in line with changes in society and our “social reality”.

The majority differed on Sparks’ comments in her decision, two of the judges stating that her comments were “close to the line” on raising a reasonable apprehension of bias. However, the other four judges in the majority felt that her comments, “reflect[ed] an entirely appropriate recognition of the facts in evidence in this case and of the context within which this case arose -- a context known to Judge Sparks and to any well-informed member of the community.”[8]

The case set a precedent for the application of the principle of reasonable apprehension of bias and was notable for its commentary on the role of social context in adjudication. 

Sparks continued to serve on the judiciary for another 26 years following her decision in R. v. S (R.D.), during which she facilitated judicial education through various organizations and developed educational programs related to social context judicial education. She retired from the bench on December 31, 2021, and is currently a commissioner with the Nova Scotia Land Titles Initiative, adjudicating land claims for clear title over land in five historic African Nova Scotian communities.

Sparks has said, “Whenever you’re the first in any profession, you’re going to face obstacles. It doesn’t mean you accept the criticism and barriers, but it makes you more determined than ever to eliminate those barriers for the next generation. I hope those in the legal community and beyond will see me as a hardworking individual who was given a rare opportunity to serve the public and serve humanity.”[9]

Special thanks to Lauren Sheffield for her assistance in preparing this feature. 

Further Reading and Resources

Bernard-Washington, Amariah, “The First Black Female Judge – Judge Corrine Sparks”, October 27, 2017, AfricentricTV, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTXTs32vIVU

Chisholm, Cassidy, “Halifax man reflects on racial profiling, 23 years after Supreme Court acquittal”, June 5, 2020, CBC News, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/halifax-man-reflects-on-racial-profiling-by-police-1.5600309

RDS vs. A Story of Race and Justice, 2020, Canadian Race Relations Foundation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gW8K-9kB1rM

Tattrie, Jon, “How a 'national crisis' showed the value of black judges”, February 5, 2017, CBC News, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/nova-scotia-robert-wright-judicial-equity-1.3963884

Tattrie, Jon, “Rocky Jones”, The Canadian Encyclopedia, May 19, 2016, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/rocky-jones



[1] For a discussion on substantive diversity and the bench, see The Honourable Shirzad Ahmed , “Racial Diversity on the Bench” Keynote Address at the National Spring 2021 Conference of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) ( April 29, 2021): https://www.fct-cf.gc.ca/en/pages/media/speeches/racial-diversity-on-the-bench and borrowing from Madame Justice Bertha Wilson, ”Will Women Judges Really Make a Difference” Fourth Annual Barbara Betcherman Memorial Lecture, Osgoode Hall Law School, 8 February 1990https://digitalcommons.osgoode.yorku.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1764&context=ohlj

[2] Bernard-Washingon, Amariah, “The First Black Female Judge – Justice Corrine Sparks”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTXTs32vIVU.

[3]  Ibid.

[4] Doucet, Jane,  “Blazing trails: Schulich Law alumni make history in Nova Scotia's judiciary”, February 6, 2020, https://www.dal.ca/faculty/law/news-events/news/2020/02/06/blazing_trails__corrine_sparks__llb__79__and_john_bodurtha__llb__95__make_history.html

[5] “Spotlight on the 25th Anniversary of Touchstones”, Canadian Bar Association, March 12, 2018, https://www.cba.org/News-Media/News/2018/March/Touchstones.

[6] R. v. S (R.D.), [1997] 3 SCR 484, para. 119.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., para. 30.

[9] Hurley, Stephanie, “Judge Corrine Sparks Named 2020 Recipient of the Weldon Award for Unselfish Public Service”, November 2, 2020, https://www.dal.ca/news/2020/11/02/judge-corrine-sparks-named-2020-recipient-of-the-weldon-award-fo.html.

About this feature: The Cavalluzzo LLP features series, Reflections: Labour, Human and Civil Rights, highlights some of the leaders, events, and milestones that are historical underpinnings to the current landscape of Canadian human rights and labour rights. Reflections may reference abhorrent historical realities: as we bear witness to those, we also recognize with gratitude the courage and commitment of the changemakers who continue to inspire strides in social justice. Each instalment in this series has been authored or contributed to by Cavalluzzo LLP staff, articling students or lawyers. 

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