BC’s first South Asian woman judge

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To mark International Women’s Day and the first International Day of Women Judges, eNews is profiling several BC Provincial Court women judges whose appointments constituted milestones in our province’s history. Today we feature Judge Harbans Dhillon, BC’s first South Asian woman judge.

Judge Dhillon

Judge Harbans Dhillon was the first South Asian woman to be appointed a judge in BC (and possibly the first in Canada). She was appointed a BC Provincial Court judge on May 3, 1999.

Although she was born in Hong Kong and came to Canada in 1961, Judge Dhillon’s family has a longer history in BC. Her great-grandfather Sohen Singh came to Canada early in the last century and died in 1908 in Millside BC, where timber mills processed logs sent down the Fraser River from the Interior.

Her grandfather made Hong Kong his home base and brought up his family there. Judge Dhillon believes that the “continuous journey” legislation meant to bar Indian British subjects from Canada – the law that forced the vessel Komagata Maru back from Vancouver to Hong Kong in 1913 – convinced her grandfather it would be impossible to follow his father to BC. As a result, Judge Dhillon and her father were born in Hong Kong. When her father finally made the journey to Canada with his family in 1961, he needed a Ministerial permit to immigrate.

The family’s story came full circle when Sohen Singh’s great-granddaughter was appointed a judge in 1999 and became responsible for interpreting and applying law which only decades before had such an adverse impact on the South Asian community.

Judge Dhillon lived in Hong Kong, Japan, and India as a young child. Her family settled in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighborhood where she attended elementary and high school. She obtained her BA and did graduate studies in anthropology and sociology at UBC before working as an information counselor with the Matsqui Abbotsford Legal Services Society. It was there she became interested in law – interested enough to return to UBC for a law degree.

Her experiences as a member of a visible minority, a woman, and an advocate made Judge Dhillon passionate about protecting human rights. She saw how law could improve people’s lives and protect immigrants, minorities, and women.

Following her call to the bar in 1988, Judge Dhillon worked with a large Vancouver law firm until she was appointed a judge. While practising law, she taught civil litigation at the UBC law school. Her volunteer work included helping launch the BC Civil Liberties Association’s pro bono program and serving on its board of directors, as well as being an active member of the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF).

Judge Dhillon has presided for several years in the Drug Treatment Court of Vancouver where she encourages and inspires people struggling with addictions. One of them said about her, “I have never experienced somebody who was so compassionate, encouraging and supportive.” Judge Dhillon has also served on the Court’s Education Committee and as a member of the executive of the BC Provincial Court Judges’ Association.

When asked for her thoughts on her appointment, Judge Dhillon said:

“I adopt the words of Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dube on her retirement: It is a tribute to this magnificent country where everything is possible (even for women and other minorities now) and there is always room at the top for anyone who wants to make the effort. For me, it was a privilege and although the road was not an easy one at times, it was worth the travel. I went into law because of my interest in justice and I did my best to render it.”

Other women judges whose appointments were "firsts"

Canada’s first female Iranian-born judge - Judge Delaram Jahani
Judge’s appointment makes news around the world - Judge Valliammai Chettiar
Passionate about judicial education - Judge Rita Bowry