A recipient of the prestigious Law Society of Ontario Medal in recognition of her outstanding service within the legal profession, Susan Ursel is a fearless advocate known for her ground-breaking contributions to progressive legal change.
Susan represents trade unions and progressive organizations in all aspects of the law that touch on the lives of working people. Her practice encompasses the full spectrum of labour law and human rights and constitutional law, including judicial reviews and appellate litigation. On behalf of employees and retirees, she advises and advocates in areas including pension and benefits, major insolvencies, pay equity and occupational health and safety. As a trade union lawyer with senior level-experience in numerous precedent-setting cases, she is called on by her clients to lobby government and advise on the development of legislation, regulation and policy.
Over the course of her nearly 40-year career, Susan has compiled a long and distinguished record of achievement. She has helped the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ defeat the efforts of two different Ontario governments to restrict free collective bargaining and impose wage restraints. She has successfully represented employees and retirees seeking to preserve their pensions, benefits and severance entitlements during Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act proceedings involving major Canadian companies such as Air Canada, Sears and Essar Steel Algoma. She has also successfully engaged in class action litigation on behalf of pension plan members adversely affected by government reorganizations in the broader public sector. Most recently during the COVID pandemic, she helped create, and worked as part of, a close-knit legal team with her clients to ensure their members’ health, safety and well-being were protected, taking on the Ontario Government and major employers in this effort.
Susan’s efforts on behalf of her clients often take her into areas of concern to them beyond traditional labour and employment law. She was counsel to members of the encampment in the Occupy Toronto case in 2011, arguing for their constitutional right to expression. She has recently litigated the issue of restrictions on third-party democratic participation in Ontario elections under the Election Finance Act. She was counsel to a union and latterly the Canadian Bar Association in the first and second Trinity Western University cases at the Supreme Court of Canada, which dealt with LGBT rights and the appropriate training of teachers and lawyers in religiously based universities.
Her work in the human rights field stretches back more than three decades. Before the Supreme Court of Canada, she has appeared in several landmark cases establishing LGBT rights. These include Egan and Nesbitt, the first Supreme Court decision to deal with the equality rights of gay men and lesbians, and the Chamberlain case, which dealt with the educational rights of children in gay and lesbian families. Her Supreme Court record also includes defending the rights of workers with disabilities in a wrongful dismissal case (Honda v Keays) that significantly impacted Canadian employment law.
Susan has acted as complainant’s counsel in important human rights cases such as the Hamilton Gay Pride Day case, the Sims case, which dealt with employment rights of gay men and lesbians, and the Thornton case, which asserted the employment rights of persons with HIV/AIDS. Representing members of the transsexual/transgender communities, she has also helped establish essential human rights precedents in cases such as Hogan, dealing with the full availability of public health care for the trans community, and XY v Ontario, dealing with the issue of gender identification on birth certificates. Susan’s involvement in the widely reported “Jane Doe” v. Metropolitan Toronto Police case helped bring about systemic and long-standing changes in policing approaches to sexual assault crimes against women.
Susan’s achievements have been recognized by the Law Society of Ontario, who granted her their LSO Medal; the Canadian Bar Association, who granted her their 2011 Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conference (SOGIC) Hero Award; the American College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, who elected her to an exclusive fellowship; and Pro Bono Ontario Law, who granted her a Lifetime Achievement Award. In Julie Soloway and Emma Costante’s Leading the Way: Canadian Women in the Law (2015), Susan was named one of the 50 trailblazing women in Canadian law of the past 100 years. She is also an inductee in the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives – Builders of Tolerance: Portraits from the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives – 2000. In 2016, she was a member of the first Independent Advisory Board for Supreme Court of Canada Justices, charged with recommending qualified, functionally bilingual candidates for appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Susan speaks, teaches and writes frequently on human rights and Charter issues, as well as on labour-related issues such as pay equity, pensions and labour rights. She has helped found, lead, operate or advise a host of significant professional and community organizations committed to promoting human rights and progressive values in law. They include Envisioning LGBT Global Human Rights, Pro Bono Law Ontario, the Coalition for the Reform of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Association of Human Rights Lawyers, the Gay and Lesbian Issues and Rights Committee of the Canadian Bar Association, the Foundation for Equal Families and the (then) Emily Stowe Shelter for Women.
Susan is a member of the Ontario Bar Association, the Canadian Association of Labour Lawyers and the Association of Human Rights Lawyers. She holds her LLB from Osgoode Hall Law School and her BA (with High Distinction) from the University of Toronto. In 2012, she was a member of the inaugural class of students successfully completing the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo.
Decisions of Interest
- As part of a multi-union team of lawyers, Susan contributed to a successful challenge overturning legislation that imposed wage restraints and constrained free collective bargaining.
- Susan and others from UPFH helped the OSSTF overturn unprecedented government restrictions on third-party political advertising aimed at suppressing the political speech of unions.
- Susan was co-counsel in a human rights complaint successfully challenging the Government of Manitoba’s requirement that an “M” or “F” sex designation be listed on birth certificates it issues.
- Susan helped gain a successful settlement in a class action brought by employees of Community Care Access Centres whose pension rights had been negatively affected by the Ontario government’s reorganization of their employers.