Born in Fort Williams (now Thunder Bay), Ontario, Laskin’s parents were Russian Jewish Immigrants. Laskin’s first language was Yiddish, and he was fluent in Hebrew as well. After studying at the University of Toronto, he got his law degree at Osgood Hall Law School and then earned a Masters of Law at Harvard Law School.
Returning to Toronto, Laskin discovered that his outstanding academic record meant nothing to the law firms, who ignored him because he was Jewish. This elitist anti-Semitism pushed him toward a career in academia at his two Canadian alma maters.
In addition to teaching, Laskin served as a labor arbitrator, an associate editor of the Dominion Law Report and Canadian Criminal Cases, and was a prolific writer (6 books, 7 commissioned reports and dozens of articles). A founding member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, he also helped found the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Additionally, Laskin was the chair of the Legal Affairs Committee of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
In 1965, having never practiced law, Laskin was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeals, where he served with distinction. In 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appointed him to the Canadian Supreme Court, and three years later he was appointed Chief Justice, even though he was the second most junior member of the court.
Laskin was the first Jew appointed to the Canadian Supreme Court. At first, he was part of the liberal minority (which became a majority), and earned him the nickname “the Great Dissenter.” While on the court, Laskin also served on the board of several universities and was the chancellor of Lakeland University from 1971-1980. Laskin received 27 honorary degrees. He was a member of the Royal Society of Canada and a Companion of the Order of Canada.