Multani, Meiorin and Sauvé are all names that are synonymous with legal tests in Canada. But beyond the monumental Supreme Court of Canada decisions that bear their names, little is known about the former litigants and how they feel about their names being famous in legal circles for the precedents they set. The trio describes the impact of their court victories.
Richard Sauvé (voting rights for prisoners)
More than 40 years ago, Richard Sauvé was arrested and convicted for the first-degree murder of an Ontario biker-gang member. After serving his sentence and while on parole, he was denied the right to vote.
Sauvé launched a legal challenge that ended in a 5-4 decision in the Supreme Court of Canada in 2002. He secured a historic right for inmates to cast votes in elections, as guaranteed in Section 3 of the Charter of Rights.
Eighteen years after his victory, Sauvé works to help reintegrate prisoners back to society. He works at St. Leonard’s LifeLine and Peer Life Transition, where he helps men serving long sentences. “I do one-on-one counselling with them,” he says. Sauvé also works at Queen’s University’s law clinic as the Indigenous justice coordinator.
While Sauvé’s case set a legal precedent, he says the legal precedent he set came at a cost him and his family.
“I had grandkids,” Sauvé said. “They studied about this in law class and they have always been aware of the fact that I was in prison,” he says, adding they were stigmatized.
Sauvé says that when he was still in prison, his victory helped give prisoners hope for community engagement. Around election time, they would read the newspapers, watch the television and discuss all the political parties and their platform.
Tawney Meiorin (equality for women firefighters)
In 1994 Tawney Meiorin lost her job as a crew member fighting forest fires in B.C. after she fell 49 seconds short of meeting the physical requirement of running 2.5 kilometers in less than 11 minutes.
She then launched a legal challenge based on the argument that she was discriminated against because women have less aerobic capacity than men.
It was a six-year battle that ended in a Supreme Court of Canada victory for Meiorin in a ruling that concluded she was a victim of sex discrimination.
But she says the win came too late for her to go back to firefighting.
“I lost a career that I loved,” Meiorin says. “I would not be hired as a firefighter because I had a pending lawsuit against the government. I had to find a whole new career.”
Meiorin now works in occupational health and safety in B.C.
She has a key piece of advice that she learned from her court case.
“If you feel that something is wrong, have the courage to fight and don’t give up,” Meiorin says. “Keep fighting as hard and as far as you can.”
Gurbaj Singh Multani (the right to carry kirpan at school)
At 12 years old, Gurbaj Singh Multani was a practising Sikh who was not allowed to carry a small ceremonial dagger at his French public school in Quebec. His father, Balvir Singh Multani, challenged the policy, kicking off a legal saga that ended in a Supreme Court of Canada victory on the grounds of religious freedom.
Almost 14 years after the 2006 ruling, Gurbaj says he wished that it did not take a legal fight to secure the right.
“We live in Canada,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting such harsh behaviour against students in a multicultural country.”
Multani, who is now 31, works for the federal government in Sudbury.
He says he would have loved to work in Quebec, but his French is not strong enough, which he attributes to not being able to attend French school while his challenge wound its way through the system.
“I wanted to learn French and that was the reason why I went to a French school,” Multani says. “Since the case went through for six years, I wasn’t able to attend a French school. By the time it was done, I was graduated from high school without being fully bilingual.”
Still, he says he is happy to have dedicated a part of his life to fighting for something all Canadians should have.
By Merna Emara (legal journalism student at Carleton University, Ottawa)