Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Gaylene Kendell is the person she is today as a result of her up close and personal experience with Alberta’s foster care system as a child.
Justice Kendell - who was appointed to the Bench on April 12, 2018, and officially sworn in on June 28 in a ceremony held in Red Deer – was three years old when her family began fostering children.
“My earliest childhood memories involve brothers and sisters who looked very different from me,” says Justice Kendell, whose parents immigrated to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1960s.
She proudly notes that her mother will be recognized this year for having fostered for 40 years. “In those 40 years, more than 50 children were a part of my family for varying lengths of time.”
The Edmonton Justice recalls that she shared her childhood with foster siblings of various ethnicities, particularly those of Indigenous descent, and many of them suffered from what is now identified as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
“Regardless of the color of these children’s skin, or any of their physical, emotional or cognitive challenges, they were my brothers and sisters and they were welcomed into our home,” she says.
However, the sometimes harsh reality of the foster care system is not something that a preschooler can easily absorb.
“As a very young child, I struggled with how I could have my foster siblings happily living in our home, but then they could be removed later. It was difficult for me to understand why that was best,” says Justice Kendell.
“As an adult, I got a better understanding and realized it sometimes had to do with them being returned to their biological family,” she says. “As a lawyer, I understood that while government intervention is often necessary, it should be exercised with caution, as reuniting children with their family, where possible, is in their best interests.”
The recently sworn-in judge credits growing up in a fostering family for many of her positive personal characteristics, including having consideration for others, tolerance, patience, the ability to problem solve, compromise and negotiate, a commitment to serving the public and a strong sense of independence.
“It also taught me to hope and believe that people can change and exceed the limits placed on them,” she says.
As well, she recalls the life tenet her mother drilled into her and her multiple siblings, both biological and foster, that if you don’t set high goals and work to achieve them, you will never get there.
“My mom always said things like reach for the stars and if you hit a tree, oh well,” she says. “You always do your best. It doesn’t matter what you are doing. You put your heart and soul into it.”
As someone from a visible minority, Justice Kendell appreciates more than most the importance of diversity, and she understands that as the number of visible minorities in Canada continues to increase exponentially, it is important to have that diversity reflected in the judiciary.
“People from different backgrounds bring a different perspective to the Court,” she says. “And it is important to have people of color seeing a reflection of themselves on the Bench. As Canadians, we seek to make all people who want to be a part of our unique society welcome, regardless of race, color or creed, and I believe having a diverse judiciary will help to achieve that goal.”
Justice Kendell was called to the Bar in December 1999 after graduating from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law in 1998 and she mainly practiced in the area of family law.
So why did this tireless advocate for clients and their children want to be a judge?
“I wanted to be a family law lawyer from when I was five years old and being a judge never crossed my mind,” she says, but in her practice, she experienced some judges who were able to make a difference by actually changing the thinking of both parties, which ultimately had a positive impact on the parties’ children
“I aspired to having that positive impact on people’s lives,” she says.
And what kind of judge does the relatively new Justice hope to be?
“I want to be the type of judge who is seen as fair and is known for listening to what the parties have to say,” says Justice Kendell. “I just want to be a good judge and have people feel like they were heard and respected and their views given fair consideration.”