When a lawyer is appointed a judge of the Provincial Court of British Columbia it usually makes news – often an article in the local newspaper in a size inversely proportional to the size of the community. So, in Vancouver there’ll be a short paragraph while in smaller communities more background detail and perhaps a photograph. However, the 2015 appointment of one Provincial Court judge made news around the world.
Judge Valliammai Chettiar was the first person from Tamil Nadu to become a judge in Canada, and her appointment was hailed as an inspiration to Tamils both in India and abroad. Tamil Nadu (land of the Tamils) is one of the 29 states that make up India. Located on the country’s southeast tip, it is one of India’s most literate states, with a tradition of written literature dating back 2000 years. Judge Chettiar was born there and lived in various cities in India before moving with her family to Hong Kong at the age of eight. She attended elementary and high school in Hong Kong and at boarding school in Tamil Nadu.
After attending university in India she came to Canada as a young adult speaking English, Tamil, Cantonese, and Hindi, and was a wife and mother when she attended law school at the University of British Columbia. After articling with a large Vancouver law firm and clerking with the Supreme Court of BC, Judge Chettiar set up a law practice in Chilliwack. A few years later she became a partner in a Vancouver law firm, and then general counsel to an investment management company. Before her appointment as a judge, she acted as an arbitrator and mediator for various provincial tribunals.
Judge Chettiar spent years working on initiatives to promote commercial relations between Canada and India, serving on several councils for that purpose and receiving the Pravasi Excellence Award in New Delhi in 2004 for her contributions to the socio-economic development of both countries. She was an active volunteer on Law Society committees, and served as an elected council member and on committees for the Canadian Bar Association and its BC Branch.
Having been exposed to different cultures and to discrimination in her early travels, Judge Chettiar developed a lifelong commitment to equality and diversity. Her volunteer activities included a series of live radio and television programs for multicultural communities, training immigrant settlement workers, and projects targeting family violence. In 2008 the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association recognized her contributions by awarding her its Equality and Diversity Award and in 2012 the Canadian Bar Association conferred its Touchstone Award on her for promoting equality in the legal profession.
Tamil news sources around the world reported her appointment. For example, Tamil Central, a Tamil Nadu online news service, said:
The magazine of Nagarathar* Sangam of North America, published in Michigan, reported:
And the Northern California Nagarathar Association even included her appointment in a quiz:
Judge Chettiar’s appointment was feted by Tamil communities in North America, India and elsewhere. She has been asked to speak to groups in Canada, the US, and farther afield - for example, in Dubai.
* the Nagarathars (also known as Nattukkottai Chettiars) are a business community in Tamil Nadu, known for their philanthropy and rich cultural heritage. Historically they were indigenous bankers who formed a banking system that operated parallel to the expanding British Empire from south India to several countries in south-east Asia.