Justice John Bodurtha vividly remembers the day last summer when he called his parents in Ontario to announce he had been appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. “My mother started screaming on the phone. She could not be more proud or happy for me.”
His parents came to Canada from Jamaica in 1968. His father had graduated in medicine and his mother in nursing from the University of West Indies, and because of their university’s connection to Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s, they came here to work. They did well, but his father faced racism in the medical profession. “There was an opinion doctors from the West Indies couldn’t live up to Canadian standards.”
I pinch myself and realize I am one of the luckiest people in the world to have this opportunity.
There was a strong Caribbean presence in the household with Jamaican food and music, and often guests from the West Indies attending university here. “Many times, I was the only Black kid in class. Seeing those individuals on weekends opened up a new world to me. It gave me a place where I felt comfortable and could be myself. But going to a friend’s house you’d get the look that said, ‘oh, I didn’t know you were bringing a Black friend.’” In his more diverse high school, he felt a connection to African Nova Scotian students.
John felt overt family pressure to succeed. “We had to get our homework done before we did anything else. My mom made sure we were reading all the time. It was: ‘you have to realize that you’re Black and you have to be twice as good as the next person.’ That’s where my drive started. As Black Jamaicans they knew education was invaluable and something people couldn’t take away.”
He attended the University of Western Ontario, earning a B.A. in psychology. “I was struggling with what I wanted to do.” He was attracted to law at Dalhousie by its Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq Initiative. “It was one time in my life that I had a peer group that was supportive, accepting and non-judgmental. It was where I started to flourish and consider a career in law as a litigator. My parents were thrilled I had found a career path.” John was admitted to the Nova Scotia Bar in 1996 and worked with Nova Scotia Legal Aid before joining the Federal Department of Justice in the Tax Law Services Section. He has served on several community boards including Phoenix Youth Programs.
John is the oldest of three; his sister is a social worker in Vancouver, his brother a federal government scientist. Connections to his heritage continue into the next generation. His two sons, 10 and 15, visit Jamaica regularly with their family and one son has a Jamaican flag in his room.
The significance of his recent appointment is not lost on John. “I pinch myself and realize I am one of the luckiest people in the world to have this opportunity.” He realizes, in particular, what it means to the African-Canadian community. “I feel it when I walk around the courthouse, when I bump into people on the street. It gives hope to a whole generation.”