29 years ago when Corrine Sparks was appointed to the Nova Scotia Family Court in 1987, she became the first Black Nova Scotian appointed to the bench and the first Black Canadian to serve on the judiciary.
Justice Sparks grew up in Lake Loon, Nova Scotia in a family of nine children. In 1953, this rural region of Nova Scotia was segregated. In 2016, it’s hard to imagine that portions of Canada were formally or informally segregated, but it was.
Black Canadians were segregated and marginalized; they suffered legal discrimination while helping build Canada, protect Canada’s home front in World War I and fight for Canada in World War II.
In 1950s Nova Scotia, the schools were poor and segregated. This is the world Justice Sparks grew up in. However, Justice Sparks’ parents, Helen and Spencer Sparks, stressed the importance of hard work and an education. By the 1970s, Justice Sparks completed middle school and high school, where she found teachers who recognized her potential.
After graduating high school, Justice Sparks attended Mount Saint Vincent University from 1971 to 1974, where she studied economics. She then enrolled in Dalhousie University and graduated with her LLB in 1979.
Following graduation she developed her own law practice focusing on family and real estate law. Aware of the needs of marginalized Nova Scotians, she served on a number of charitable organizations focused on helping black children and addressing mental health needs. Justice Sparks practiced private law until her appointment to the bench.
In 1987, she was appointed to Nova Scotia’s Family Court. Justice Sparks’ pursued her academic interests by pursuing her LLM while running her practice and then serving on the bench. In 2001, she received her LLM from Dalhousie University (1979-2001).
Justice Sparks continues to serve on the bench. She has received numerous awards and accolades including the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers Service Award in 1997, the 1998 National Association of Women and the Law, Frances Lillian Fish Award, the 2002 Congress of Black Women, Service Award and the Elizabeth Fry Society, Rebel with a Cause Award in 2003.
Role in SCC’s Decision Regarding Apprehension of Bias
In 1993, a Black youth was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer while he was attempting to arrest another person. The officer claimed the young man purposely ran into him with his bike in attempt to free the person under arrest.
However, the youth stated he stopped his bike and asked the police officer what he was doing. Recognizing the person who was arrested, he asked him if he should call his mother. The police officer then threatened the young man addressing the person under arrest. But the young man continued to talk to person. So, the police officer arrested the Black youth. This case became R v S (RD).
Justice Corrine Sparks was the trial judge in R v S (RD). After reviewing the evidence, Justice Sparks acquitted the young man. She noted that the only evidence was the testimony of both the officer and the young man. She went on to note that the police officer overacted. Her remarks prompted an appeal.
Her decision was appealed on the grounds of reasonable apprehension of bias. However, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with Justice Sparks’ acquittal of youth (RDS), allowed the appeal and restored the acquittal.
The Court noted, that “it is vital to bear in mind that the test for reasonable apprehension of bias applies equally to all judges, regardless of their background, gender, race, ethnic origin, or any other characteristic. A judge who happens to be black is no more likely to be biased in dealing with black litigants, than a white judge is likely to be biased in favour of white litigants. All judges of every race, colour, religion, or national background are entitled to the same presumption of judicial integrity and the same high threshold for a finding of bias. Similarly, all judges are subject to the same fundamental duties to be and to appear to be impartial”(paragraph 115).