London Convention Centre – London, Ontario – June 24, 2013
A Tribute To
The Honourable Justice Edward W. Ducharme: Lover of Poetry and the Law
(August 11, 1943 – June 2, 2013)
Justice Edward Ducharme, husband, father, brother, teacher, lawyer, judge … valued friend.
Edward Ducharme was first and foremost an English teacher. Although his Honorary Doctorate celebrates his career as a lawyer and a judge, law was his second career. His first chosen career– he began his adult life as a University English Professor–was as a scholar and teacher. His colleagues were W.O. Mitchell and Alistair MacLeod, both icons of Canadian literature. He was their equal in his university persona as Dr. Edward Ducharme, Ph.D., Chair English Department, Assistant Dean and Assistant Vice-President, University of Windsor.
Despite his success and achievement as a scholar, he elected to make a pivotal change in mid-life, and pursue a career in law. After graduating with a law degree from the University of Windsor, and a call to the Bar — he had four university degrees — he returned to the contemplative life of the academy where he resumed his teaching career.
Three years later he made another life-altering change, this time he left his tenured position and entered the frenzied life of law practice with a Windsor law firm. He attributed this pivotal move, probably as a cover-up for his erratic, ephemeral career swings, to being bribed by friend and lawyer Harvey Strosberg with an expensive lunch. In the course of one of our splendidly long, wonderfully wandering conversations that followed a path not unlike that of a pastoral stream meandering across a mountain meadow, Edward confessed that his mother had admonished him saying “so long as there are people who need your help you have a duty to practice law”. I suspect that this was the real reason why he returned to law.
There are other possibilities, however. He may have been motivated by his younger brother Patrick, a distinguished and accomplished criminal lawyer. Patrick loved the law. He practiced with a zeal that was driven by his love of work and desire to help others, not for monetary gain. As is so often the case with people who work for the sheer love of it, he excelled at his calling. No doubt about it, Edward saw his brother as a role model – quite something coming from a man who in his own right was a folk hero in Windsor. If Patrick could be so passionate about the law it must be worth pursuing. There is another possible explanation for this late-in-life career move. In his swearing-in speech at the Court of Appeal, he adverted to a growing disenchantment with the ethereal world of the academy. Edward loved words and their creative use. He theorized that words take on a meaning depending on the context in which they are used. In the academy he became frustrated with the narrowness of some of his colleagues and their inability to understand how words took on meaning. He used as an example a colleague trying, the operative word was “trying”, to teach students about a poem by 19th Century English poet William Blake called “The Sick Rose”.
The point of the lesson was the poem’s meaning. The colleague was convinced that his students couldn’t appreciate the true meaning of the poem which he thought only allowed one meaning. Edward did not share this view. He later found that there were nine or ten different and competing interpretations discussed in academic literature. This led Edward into a crisis of his own. In his words, “where does a text’s meaning reside?” The author’s intention? The literal meaning? The subjectivity of the reader? Or all combined? He became so confused by this puzzle that he applied to law school. Edward had overheard his brother and other lawyers speak of the meaning of law. He thought that he might find solace in a discipline where colleagues found faith in a single interpretation of words. This held a special appeal for him.
Edward Ducharme was the quintessential teacher. Were he here today in my place he would, I am as sure as anything can be, have a lesson for you. What would that lesson have been?
I begin with one of Edward’s favourite couple of lines of poetry from E.E.Cummings. I digress to mention that Edward so often said to me, “the real philosophers are poets”. Cummings wrote:
I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
Than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.
For Edward these words evoked his intense love and respect for his wife Carolyn, in her own right an accomplished lawyer. Carolyn was to him so “life-affirming” and “endlessly positive” that at his swearing-in he described her as “the very person E.E. Cummings must have imagined” when he wrote this poem.
Good poetry, rich with meaning, takes on different significance for different readers. When I read the first line of this verse, I see myself as a little boy, getting up at dawn before anyone else in the family, dressing and going outside to listen to birds sing in the prairie springtime. The air, filled with the joyous melodies of the meadowlark, wren and tiny warbler, brings the world to life for me.
This contrasts with the second line. There I envision a cold, black winter’s night with no light other than the milky-way, the sky filled with thousands upon thousands of sparkling stars, dancing about in the heavens. Walking alone in the still, frosty air, with crunchy snow under foot, I imagine myself staring up in futility in an effort to stop all those tiny stars from dancing.
My subjective interpretation of Cummings’ verse produces a comparison of the positive and the negative: contrasting simple joy with the despondency associated with trying to achieve the impossible. Or, if you seek to personify the verse, you could equate it, as Edward did, to someone, to Carolyn, who fills your consciousness to overflowing with happiness and inspiration.
The point is that the richness, the fertility of this poem can bring forth different meanings in the mind of different readers. The English professor who frustrated Dr. Ducharme with his rigidity, sought a type of clarity and singularity that would stifle the fecundity of this poem.
In law, on the other hand, words are deliberately used with a precision that Edward found, albeit in a different way, attractive. Regardless of the context, a lawyer proffering a statement, orally or in writing, must not exaggerate, mislead or embellish the facts. Words are taken to intend their literal meaning. The use of adjectives is discouraged. In other words, the language used in a legal context is supposed to be clear, simple, and unambiguous.
This is merely an ideal, of course, and one that will not always be met, for if it were, there would be much less work for lawyers like you and me.Our goal as legal professionals is to use words carefully, to communicate a clear meaning which all readers will construe in the same way.
Poems speak a different truth, one which is equally or perhaps even more noble. We must recognize, however, the difference of purpose behind legal language and poetry. The virtue of poetry is that it is a wellspring of nuance. Legal language seeks instead the opposite end: certainty, clarity, and singularity of meaning.
Today on this special day, I think Edward Ducharme might have delivered this simple but nonetheless important point to you, when as fledgling lawyers you will go forth to serve the public to the best of your ability. He knew that words are the stock in trade of lawyers. As a lawyer now and for the rest of your life, you will need to use them carefully and sincerely.
Your role will not be that of a poet but rather an advocate who must speak and write clearly and directly, and represent factual matters as the unvarnished truth. Edward Ducharme loved language as used in both poetry and law. That said, he recognized the fundamental difference between the two.
Today Edward would conclude by saying to you, go forth to do good, help those who need your help, inspired as you do so by your love of the law and pride in your new profession. If you do, you will have a life well lived.
Should you enter the profession with only monetary gains in mind, focused on the bottom line, you shall, as surely as day follows night, go away unfulfilled. Edward would urge you to aspire to do good, to hold your head high and, to be proud of yourself, confident in the knowledge that you can be doubly proud, because if you do good you will also do well. Like Blake, he believed that he could help build Jerusalem “among these dark Satanic Mills”.
The life of Edward Ducharme is testimony to his commitment to making the world a better place. With a stellar career as an academic leader behind him, he entered the legal profession at the behest of his mother to help people. In short order he became a Bencher of The Law Society, then a trial judge and regional senior judge and finally a judge of the Court of Appeal. Edward took up the practice of law to do good and ended up doing well.
I wish you every success in your career. You could do no better than to try to emulate Justice Edward Ducharme’s brilliant contribution to justice and the law.
During his last days Edward told me repeatedly that he felt that he had let me down by not being able to finish out his years on the Court of Appeal. Always thinking of others before himself, right up to the end, he felt badly not for himself but for me, even in the sad circumstance of his terminal illness. That was our Edward. That was the true measure of the man.
Edward’s friend, colleague and literary idol, W.O Mitchell, in the preface to his famous Canadian novel, “Who Has Seen the Wind”, set the book’s theme, “the ultimate meaning of the cycle of life”, in the language of the 103rd Psalm: when a man’s life on earth is over his place shall know him no more.
The Psalmist never met Edward Ducharme.
I thank you so very much.