[Appointed to the Court of Appeal January 25, 2002 – Retirement March 7, 2013]
Remarks by the Honourable Warren K. Winkler Chief Justice of Ontario
Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 10:00 A.M.
Courtroom #1 – Osgoode Hall
Robert Patrick Armstrong . . . student, classmate, advocate, husband, father, grandfather, colleague, friend. . . .Robert Patrick Armstrong the person.
More than fifty years ago, in the fall of 1960, I moved into Wycliffe College, an Anglican Theological College on the U of T campus. I was twenty one years old. Another new boarder about the same age was Robert Patrick Armstrong.
I was a law student at Osgoode Hall Law School and Bob was beginning a Master’s Degree in political science at U of T.
He came from Ottawa, and for some reason he was known as Dinty. He was a graduate of Carlton University and before that Fisher Park High School.
Dinty was a rather quaint amalgam of serious hard-working scholar and bright-eyed Irish character who enjoyed a good time. He still is that wonderful mixture.
We became good friends — enjoyed tireless talks about politics and sports; lived together at Wycliffe College for several years and later as young lawyers, until Bob and Erica were married in 1966. (They wouldn’t let me move in with them even though I had known Erica as long as he had.)
Some people work an entire lifetime, and then they retire, and the place knows them no more. It was never going to be that way for Dinty. Even an unvarnished youth such as myself, who some might have thought of as callow and feckless, could see in Dinty something that was different. It seemed inevitable that he would make his mark; he would be, as we say today, a change-agent.
For even then, at a young age, he was:
If you ever were tempted to doubt his work ethic and serious side, you needed only to meet his mother Dorothy. By the way, that’s what he called his mother . . . “Dorothy”. She raised her two sons all on her own. Dinty’s father, a prominent Ottawa physician, died when the boys were youngsters. Brought up to value hard work and achievement, Dorothy brooked no nonsense, or pity. She taught her boys goodness and discipline. If we stayed up late and had a few too many meaningful refreshments, she would rouse us at dawn, and then sit across the breakfast table glowering at us in our misery. Dinty got the message. I did too.
But, despite what I’ve said and what you’ve heard so far, this morning’s occasion requires at least some semblance of balance and fairness. So, I’ll say it right now: he wasn’t perfect. Lest I be accused of varnishing over a few flaws, let me share one little one with you. I was coach of the Wycliffe inter-mural hockey team on which Dinty was a player. (Envisage on the ice a pugnacious elf on skates armed with a hockey stick who couldn’t turn in either direction.) When I called a line change, he would sometimes refuse to come off the ice. (Today, we could call such behaviour “obstinate”.) Fortunately, he didn’t carry this questionable habit – this obstinacy – over to his time on the Court of Appeal. Just imagine him joining a panel in court as its fourth member and then refusing to leave it.
I said earlier that Dinty and I used to talk incessantly about sports and politics. But we also discussed law, and that is how his appetite for it was whetted. One day, he asked me to take him to Osgoode to meet some of my friends and check out law first-hand. So we went, and there he met some of my classmates, including: Julian Porter, whose father happened to be the CJO; and Tony Abbott, whose father was on the SCC. I thought he was impressed, but it turns out he wasn’t. He immediately forgot about Osgoode, and applied to the U of T law school. Maybe it was just a natural reaction to Julian. (That has happened to others.) Or you could just chalk it up to perversity.
In no time at all, Dinty fell in love with the law, and became a very good student.
He had to be good: he articled for Charles Dubin. And then he stayed on with Charles, eventually becoming a partner with Charles and Anne Dubin, Lorne Morphy, John Brunner, and for a while David Stockwood and Bob Blair. He later joined Tory’s when the firms merged.
I can tell you from conversations with Charles years later, that over the years Bob became to Charles the son Charles never had. Charles was so enormously fond of Bob. They were as one.
Under such powerful influence, it is no wonder that Dinty came to devote his life to the law. He modeled himself after his master mentor. He became the lawyer’s lawyer, the perfect exemplar. He was courageous and bold; he took on all manner of cases; he didn’t shy away from the tough ones; he took a briefcase home every night and worked like a Trojan. It paid off, of course, as hard work performed for the sheer love of it often does. He became a regular in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada, but he also appeared in the Provincial and Provincial Offences Courts. No appearance in a courtroom was ever trivial, or beneath his dignity.
Still, he began to see over the years as he honed his skills to an even higher degree, a greater and greater number of high profile briefs. Here is just a sample:
Our kids used to run downstairs shouting “Mom, Dad, Mr. Armstrong is on TV again.” (This annoyed me.) So, I would say, “it’s nothing. He’s just setting himself up to go into politics.”
Bob’s attitude toward settling cases was “Churchillian”. He never met a case he had any interest in settling! This may in part explain his sudden, late-career preoccupation with the “vanishing trial”.
I once referred a large civil case to him, telling the client that Bob was one of a small handful of top counsel in Canada. The client reported back that he had shared with Bob my glowing reference, to which Bob replied that he found the limitations it contained quite unnecessary.
In every facet of his professional career, you see in retrospect nothing but excellence; excellence especially in advocacy and in leadership. For example, he was:
As Treasurer he travelled to and met with lawyers in every law district and county in the province. Though he was from Bay Street, he was fully alive to the Law Society’s reputation among a vast number of lawyers from Main Street as elitist and isolated. And he fixed the problem within two years. Without any fanfare, he made the Law Society more immediate and more relevant to its more than 40,000 members than it had ever been in its long and storied history.
By this time, by the way, Dinty had quietly changed his name to “Robert”. And it was as “Robert Armstrong” that he was appointed directly to the Court of Appeal from practice in 2002. I should note here, modestly, that I won the Dubin Cup donated by Tory’s for the best speech on the occasion of his swearing-in by advancing the simple but compelling thesis that he was appointed directly to the court because of his need for a limousine. My pitch was that he needed the driver, because he never could park a vehicle and thus wasn’t licensed to drive. More than a particle of truth to this.
Once on the court he established himself as a judge’s judge. A great colleague for all of us, he was my go-to person for a friendly cup of tea and a chat about this and that. (I wouldn’t say we gossiped.)
He was also a valued advisor to me. When I asked his advice, which was often, he gave it freely, but with the same seriousness he would give to the issue if he were thinking through a problem for himself. In my view, a rare sense of commitment and the true measure of a man.
Once on the court he maintained his interest in the profession. He has for years chaired the Cambridge Lectures, a labour of love if there ever was one. It is a huge undertaking and, thanks to him, a breathtaking success.
The other day, in one of his more reflective moments, he looked at me and said: “Wink, when we were back at Wycliffe, did you ever think ‘in your wildest dreams’ that we would both be on the court of appeal someday?” I replied: “I have news for you, Dinty. Back in the Wycliffe days, you weren’t in my wildest dreams.”
Tomorrow, my friend — our friend — retires from the court. Dinty, it simply won’t be the same without you: the conversations over tea, with Bob Sparkes egging us on; no one to tease about being grumpy; no one to lighten up a chat in the retiring room after a difficult case with some wacky story about the Zephyr. I can tell you that the Zephyr was an idiosyncratic automobile given to him by Dorothy to facilitate his back and forth from Ottawa and it became his trademark.
We are all so proud of your wonderful career in the law. The mark you set out to achieve back in 1960 you have now made, emphatically and indelibly. Dorothy, Charles, Erica and your entire family are immensely proud of you today. All of your colleagues at the court and in the practicing bar feel exactly as they do. You are also our pride and our joy.
Now I turn to Erica and the family. We return our dear friend to you. You have shared him with us patiently and selflessly over all these years. Now, reluctantly, we turn him back to you and his beloved pooch Coco. Honour him, treasure him — just as surely as we do.
From all of us, thank you for your friendship over these many decades. Good health. God speed. And Robert, from me to you:
“May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields. And until we meet again, May God hold you in the hollow of his hand.”