28th November 2023
Selwyn Romilly was the first Black judge appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court. He died overnight Friday at the age of 83.  (Peter A. Allard School of Law/YouTube - image credit)

Selwyn Romilly was the first Black judge appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court. He died overnight Friday at the age of 83. (Peter A. Allard School of Law/YouTube – image credit)

The first Black person appointed to the B.C. provincial court bench, and later the B.C. Supreme Court, has died.

Selwyn Romilly died at his home overnight Friday of cancer at the age of 83, according to his brother and daughter. Several fellow retired justices in the province’s courts expressed their sorrow to CBC News at the loss of a pioneer in the justice system.

For Carol Baird Ellan, who served as chief judge of the B.C. Provincial Court from 2000 to 2005, Romilly’s legal legacy is about even more than the historic barriers he broke as a Black jurist.

He was also a friend, teacher and mentor to many, she said.

“Becoming the first in a number of ways for Black judges and Black lawyers, he was known for that,” Baird Ellan told CBC News in an interview Monday.

“But not just for that. He was known for being an eminent jurist … and a mentor to everybody in the profession. He was a mentor to me, and he was certainly a role model for people of colour to come along behind and break those barriers as well.”

‘He paved the way’

His younger brother Mervyn Romilly said he never remembered Selwyn being angry, but always “pragmatic” and persistent even in the face of racial discrimination.

Even after retirement, he continued to mentor and teach younger Black lawyers, Mervyn said.

“He paved the way for a lot of people,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “He was a trailblazer. He had a very, very illustrious career … He was a really nice guy. I’ve never seen him mad.”

Born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1940, Selwyn Romilly moved to Canada in 1960, Mervyn said. He was soon followed by two of his other brothers. His brother Valmond later entered the legal profession and became a provincial judge, too.

Just six years after arriving in Canada, Romilly got his law degree from the University of B.C., and articled in Kamloops before opening his own practice in the northern community of Smithers, B.C. He was appointed to the provincial court in 1974, and in 1995 was named a B.C. Supreme Court justice.

He retired in 2015.

“He was an academic, a humanitarian,” his brother said. “He mentored a lot of young Black kids … I was looking after him one day in his study, and I couldn’t believe the number of awards he’d accumulated.”

‘Positive outlook’

In May 2021, Selwyn was wrongly detained and handcuffed in Stanley Park by the Vancouver Police Department, which issued an apology along with the city.

But his daughter Charis Romilly Turner said her father’s reaction to the incident was to push for reforms to police practices such as handcuffing, racial profiling and searches. He did not consider suing the department over the ordeal, she said.

“He got to see a lot of things that aren’t pleasant, but he still had such a positive outlook and really enjoyed people,” Romilly Turner, the youngest of his two children, told CBC News on Monday. “He was definitely a trailblazer … and had to overcome many obstacles to be successful in his era as a Black man in the legal profession.”

His daughter said outside of the legal profession, Romilly was a devoted parent who stepped up wholeheartedly when needed. He had been a “star track athlete” as a young man in Trinidad and Tobago, she said, and when her childhood soccer team coach left he volunteered to step in.

“He was so dedicated in teaching us the skills, but also the team-building,” she recalled. “We would be the losing team because we just weren’t athletically inclined … and he’s like, ‘You know, this is the kids being here to learn to play a sport that they love.'”

Baird Ellan described Romilly’s rulings as “elegant” and telling a story, not merely citing case law. She recalls one case in which her husband, Tim Ellan, was in court as defence counsel before Romilly, who said something that stuck with the couple ever since.

“‘My ruling may be appealable, counsel, but it’s not debatable,'” Baird Ellan quoted. “And that was a line that stuck with us, we’ve used it many times since then.

“We used his judgments a lot … He injected his personality into them. They were a pleasure to read, and a pleasure to cite, to use as precedents.”

Romilly is survived by his wife, Lorna, and two children, Charis and Jasom.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.