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Retiring Ontario judge looks back, ponders future

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Sandra Chapnik
Sandra Chapnik

Ontario Superior Court Justice Sandra Chapnik is giving a tour of her chambers in downtown Toronto. A binder of achievements beckons from the sofa. An old letter from pre-mayoralty John Tory – one of 206 – congratulates her on ascending to the bench.

From a shelf across the room, the first Prime Minister Trudeau looks down, sharing face time with Chapnik. And there’s 1980s Sylvester Stallone, about 30 pounds short of his current fighting weight.

“I had a hip replacement last year, and I was home six to eight weeks,” Chapnik says, “and I started to look through my files. They were all a mess – brochures, pictures, newspaper articles. And I kept thinking, who was that? Who said that? Did I say that? It’s like an era.”

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Next month the era will end, as Chapnik bows to the court’s mandatory retirement age of 75. Her birthday, Jan. 13, will also be her last day on the bench, though she has three months to vacate chambers and six months to render her final decision – a “significant” one, she says.

“It’s bittersweet,” she says. “I’ve been here 24 years – that’s a long time – and before that, I pretty much always worked. It’s part of your persona, part of your thinking. And this place, you think differently, you write differently, you discuss things with people differently. You’re in a different scene.”

Decisions on her next act are still being considered.

“I’ll take some time to contemplate how I want to spend the good years that I might realistically have left and decide what’s best. People say you should do this inquiry or try to get on these tribunals or boards, but I’ve been there, done that. So I have to figure out what’s right for me: to relax and have fun in the sun or …”

Chapnik’s legal career almost crashed before launch. When she married Jerry Chapnik in 1962, he was still years away from eventual success as an ear, nose and throat specialist. Teacher’s college provided the most direct route to family income.

She loved teaching, she says, but law was a dream she postponed for practical reasons. “When I was a teacher, I would go to a bar mitzvah or a party, and I would find a lawyer… I would ask, ‘What did you do today? I don’t need any names, but tell me what you did today and what you did last week.’”

At 33, Chapnik enrolled at Osgoode Hall Law School. Her four children ranged in age from nine to three, and while her husband cheered her decision – “my husband has always supported me in every way,” she says – her father was less accepting.

“He was worried that I would neglect the kids. I said, ‘I might neglect you, but they’re a priority.’”

Law school proved as interesting as she had expected, but life sometimes got in the way, especially before exams.

“I can’t tell you it was easy,” she says, “because it wasn’t. I had to really learn to be present wherever I was, and that’s a lesson to learn, to put one thing aside, and when they say to wear different hats to really do that. It wasn’t perfect, but if one of the kids was ill, I would stay home and get the notes from a friend.”

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In some ways, her life experience allowed her to focus more than other students did. “There were pinball machines at Osgoode, and between classes, they’d go to pinball and I’d go and make dinner. I would read the kids a story and put them to bed – and then start reading Lord Denning [on the law].”

After she was called to the bar, her private practice covered civil litigation and family and entertainment law. Stints as a rent review commissioner, a fact finder and mediator for the Education Relations Commission and a vice-chair of the then-Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal diversified her experience.

And then the prime minister called with a judgeship.

“I was very active in the bar,” she says, in partial explanation, citing two from a long list of roles. “I was on the executives of the Canadian Bar Association, and was a bencher of the Law Society [of Upper Canada].”

Some older benchers had first floated the idea of becoming a judge with Chapnik one day in the Law Society lounge.

“And that got me thinking,” she recalls. “And then when you’re thinking about it, you can’t think of anything else – yeah, that’s a good idea. It wasn’t something I always aspired to, like some people.”

She also benefited from societal change, she says. “I must admit, I think that Kim Campbell at the time wanted to appoint more female judges, and I happened to be there, and I met her in my capacity as chair of various committees.”

The number of women on the bench has since jumped from 10 per cent to 35 per cent, but “it’s not enough,” she says.

Chapnik has rendered judgments in more than 500 cases since she started with a Friday afternoon injunction.

Outside the courtroom, Chapnik has had many leadership roles in the Jewish community at Holy Blossom Temple, Baycrest, ORT Toronto and World ORT, with which she currently serves. She also has provided informal assistance to StandWithUs Canada.

Chapnik has four married children and 10 grandchildren. The oldest, at 21, is taking the LSAT law admission test this month.