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A Tribute to Judith Wahl, a Titan in the Field of Canadian Elder Law

Ms. Wahl died May 15, 2024, in Toronto

My partner, Nimali Gamage, and I are mourning the death of Judith Wahl, a
visionary leader, determined advocate, and a valued professional colleague and

personal friend.

The late Honourable Roy McMurtry frequently reminded lawyers that we are a
helping profession. It was while Mr. McMurtry was Attorney General that the
Ontario Legal Aid Plan provided funding for a new legal clinic to serve low-
income seniors in Ontario. Judith Wahl was chosen as the first executive director
of the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly. She embraced Mr. McMurtry’s mandate

as to what a lawyer is and stayed the course for thirty-two years.

In 1984, in Canada, the concept of elder law did not exist. Elder law crosses the
traditional boundaries between different legal subjects because it focuses on how
an older person interacts with the law and is affected by it. Our concept of elder
law in Canada today is the direct result of Judith’s vision, dedication, and success

in advocating for older persons

Judith had the vision to see the broad scope of legal services and information
needed by older persons. From the beginning, ACE fulfilled its mandate of
providing legal assistance to individual low-income seniors, while addressing
systemic issues by advocating for law reform, contributing to public legal
education, and identifying institutional policies that were discriminatory and unfair

to older persons.

For example, from its early days ACE provided legal assistance to persons living
in institutions such as long-term care homes through the work of its institutional
advocate. This was complemented by substantial work done by Judith and the
entire team at ACE about the rights of residents living in long-term care. Similarly,
under Judith’s hands-on leadership, ACE provided information about patients’
rights in hospitals and health care settings to the public and provided focused
training about capacity, consent to treatment and substitute decision-making for

health care professionals.

Judith led the work of ACE and pursued advocacy, law reform and public
education on behalf of older persons with incomparable dedication. Judith sat on
committees, organized conferences, gave presentations, wrote papers and picked
up the phone to call anyone she knew needed to hear from her. She had a slide

deck (or two) on every topic. I suspect that dog-eared copies of these remain in the possession of many social workers, nurses, and senior health care administrators throughout Ontario. She advocated for older persons individually, and also systemically at every committee, working group, round table or consultation she was invited to attend, and, I suspect, some she invited herself to attend.

On many occasions I would leave a meeting late in the day alongside Judith, and
she would mention that she was going to spend the evening preparing for another
meeting or preparing a submission due the next day. Executive director of ACE
was her job, but serving to make laws work better for older persons in Ontario was

her calling.

Judith built relationships with police services across Ontario and the Ontario Police
College, and was instrumental in helping police in Ontario learn about elder abuse
so that they could serve older persons better. Her work with the police exemplified

the senior-centred approach she always advocated – more than one police officer I have met remembers Judith’s frequently repeated advice: “Talk to the senior!”.

There is a direct and clear path between Judith’s work and our concept of elder law in Canada today. Judith showed us what elder law should be: focused on the legal issues experienced by older persons combined with consideration of how law affects older persons systemically, and always seeking ways to improve law and legal processes so that older persons will have better lives. Like many, I learned from Judith that listening to an older person matters, and that thinking about law through an elder lens is essential to belonging to a helping profession.

I visited Judith in hospital. Word had spread about her illness. She was heartened
by the many messages of gratitude she had received from doctors, nurses, social
workers, academics, policymakers, police officers, and others who had learned
from Judith. Her work was important, and its effects will be lasting.
The newer lawyers at our firm often hear Nimali and I speak of Judith with

reverence and affection. We are grateful that we have been in her orbit for decades.

Our entire firm extends its condolences and sympathy to Judith’s family, dearest

friends, and former colleagues at ACE. There is no one who has matched Judith Wahl’s contributions to elder law in Canada. She was a titan.