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All-female justice roster ‘a good step’ for diversity in Yukon Supreme Court

Karen Wenckebach is the third woman appointed to the Yukon Supreme Court in history
Justice Karen Wenckebach will begin serving as resident judge on the Yukon Supreme Court early next year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Karen Wenckebach will begin serving as resident judge on the Yukon Supreme Court early next year.

Wenckebach will join Justice Edith Campbell and Chief Justice Suzanne Duncan on the Supreme Court bench. It’s the first time in Yukon history that all three Supreme Court judges have been female.

“It’s certainly an achievement to have three women; it’s a good step for diversity,” Wenckebach said.

“Hopefully we’ll be taking more steps and becoming more inclusive in terms of people of colour, First Nations judges, that would be great.”

The federal government appointed Wenckebach on Nov. 19. She is the third female justice in history to serve the Yukon’s Supreme Court.

Wenckebach told reporters on Dec. 3 that she hopes the Supreme Court bench will grow increasingly diverse, as she says that will positively impact the court system.

“Hopefully what you get is a variety of perspectives on the law, and on people’s lived experiences, and that provides a better breadth of understanding and decision-making,” Wenckebach said.

“With regards to First Nations, I can’t imagine how it is for someone who’s First Nations, who’s been subject to this colonial power, having to continue to be subject to it and be faced by somebody who is white.”

Wenckebach said she hopes to bring a humane perspective to trials.

“I think it can be a very dehumanizing system,” Wenckebach said.

“People enter it and what is a very personal experience to them becomes a set of facts that’s applied to tests; and it’s important to try and have people who are subject to the law feel like they are a part of it and it’s not just something that’s being done to them.”

The new justice suggested that adding humanity can be as simple as avoiding complicated legal jargon with litigants, to make the system more accessible without being patronizing.

“Judgments can be written in a lot of different ways, and you can do it in a way that is more comprehensible,” Wenckebach said.

Wenckebach began her career as a law clerk in the Yukon Supreme and Territorial courts, and she said that experience will be helpful in lending perspective to her new position.

“I think being a clerk you get a little bit more understanding of … how (judges) are looking at things and what they’re faced with, so that I think gave me a little bit of insight,” Wenckebach said.

Wenckebach then moved to the Yukon Legal Services Society. She practised family, poverty and criminal law there for six years. In 2013, she began working as legal counsel for the Yukon government, specializing in labour, human rights and administrative law.

She has also held various roles with the Law Society of Yukon and is a member of the Discipline Committee of the Law Society of Yukon.

The Yukon Supreme Court has been short of a judge since former Chief Justice Ron Veale retired in July. Current Chief Justice Suzanne Duncan told reporters she was “relieved” to see Wenckebach’s appointment.

“We’ve been extremely busy … so we’re very happy to have somebody else to share the load with us,” Duncan said.

Wenckebach will start hearing matters in early 2021.

Contact Gabrielle Plonka at