The defender

Marguerite Ritchie worked tirelessly in the pursuit of justice and advocacy of human and women’s rights.

Marguerite Ritchie (’43 BA, ’43 LLB). Illustration by Jordan Carson.

Marguerite Ritchie (’43 BA, ’43 LLB) was a champion of government accountability who worked to ensure that all Canadians received just and equal treatment, especially women and Indigenous women.

Marguerite Ritchie was born May 20, 1919, in Edmonton. Growing up in Edmonton in the 1920s, Ritchie would sit with her father as he read aloud from the Edmonton Journal. She remembered him sharing news stories about political problems involving the federal government. Ritchie’s mother introduced her to libraries and the wealth of information they provided. She also screened her daughter’s schools and teachers to ensure she would receive the highest quality education.

These childhood experiences laid the foundation for a lifetime of work dedicated to education, equity and integrity. In 1943 Ritchie earned her arts degree and law degree from the University of Alberta. Perhaps emboldened by her mother’s encouragement and sense of commitment, Ritchie threw herself into practising law at a time when there were few women in the legal community.

During her more than 50-year career — much of it based in Ottawa — Ritchie worked tirelessly in her pursuit of justice and advocacy of human and women’s rights. Because at that time women only worked as clerks, Ritchie initially went to work with the Combines Investigation Commission. Her exemplary work was noticed quickly, however, and she was transferred to the Department of Justice. There she began to take on the work male lawyers didn’t want. She became an expert in international law, human rights and the United Nations, and represented Canada at the Warsaw Convention in The Hague in 1955. In 1958, Ritchie completed her master’s degree in law at McGill University.

Through her work with the Department of Justice, Ritchie played a role in amendments to parliamentary procedure and constitutional and international law, and provided a voice on women’s rights. She helped change discriminatory hiring practices in the public service; changed the Indian Act, which discriminated against Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men; and made it easier for women to sit on juries and obtain a divorce. In 1963 Ritchie became the first woman in Canada to be given the title Queen’s Counsel.

In 1974, Ritchie founded the Human Rights Institute of Canada, a citizen-based charitable organization with a mandate to help ensure equality, justice and government responsibility to citizens through research and commentary on existing laws.

Ritchie’s belief in the power of the law and the strength of the people’s voice never wavered, and she never questioned her choice of career. Her dedication to the advancement of justice and equality did not gone unnoticed. Ritchie was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2000, and in 1975 she received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater.

Marguerite Ritchie passed away at the age of 96 on April 24, 2016.


For almost as long as there’s been a Canada, there’s been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary, we’re proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.

Originally published at ualberta.ca on April 28, 2016