25th Anniversary of the Charter

A Tribute Dinner to the Honourable R. Roy McMurtry

Remarks by the Honourable R. Roy McMurtry Chief Justice of Ontario
April 12, 2007

Master of ceremonies Michael Barrack, your honour Chief Justice Mclachlin, Chief Justices, judicial colleagues, Mr. Treasurer and distinguished legal colleagues all.

I am of course, absolutely overwhelmed by this special evening, overwhelmed and at the same time feeling very humble.

The presence of every single person here tonight indeed does great honour to me and my family.

I am, of course, very grateful for the huge amount of effort that has gone into this entire day. It would take several hours to adequately thank everyone responsible so I intend to communicate my appreciation later on an individual basis.

The Advocates’ Society and the Law Society as co-chairs have done the heavy lifting with respect to the dinner and I would like to thank president Michael Barrack and treasurer Gavin Mackenzie for their leadership. The dinner will help support the Gardens of Justice which is, of course, an incredible personal honour, particularly as the gardens are intended to communicate the values that form the foundation of our system of justice.

The concept of a Gardens of Justice has been pursued with tremendous energy and enthusiasm by Justice Gloria Epstein, Seymour Epstein and Cliff Lax for the past decade and with the support of many other people a very special public space will soon be created.

You have already heard from several more interesting members of my family. When I speak, I often think that I am simply attempting to imitate my son Michael. In any event, you will appreciate that I have never been allowed by my family to take myself too seriously which I recommend as invaluable training for public life.

I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to enjoy an interesting and varied professional life, more probably as a result of luck than by good management. Nevertheless I am very grateful for the countless number of people who have helped me along the way.

To mention but a few, Don Graham of the Forest Hill schools who taught me a love of history and football. My housemaster at St. Andrews college one Barnabus Tudball who caused me to learn by much written repetition that “only the nightingale is permitted to open its mouth solely for the purpose of emitting sound”.

One of my most important early learning experiences was the summers that I spent as a labourer teacher with Frontier College, an institution now 108 years old. Dr. Edmund Bradwin was the principal of Frontier College for fifty years, a true lincolnesque figure who inspired me to believe that working as a labourer teacher with new immigrants ten hours a day, six days a week and teaching them at night was a special privilege.

I remember that he would say to prospective labourer teachers that “all we can offer you is hard work, low pay, bad food, black flies and a chance to help your fellow man”. My experience mustered in me a great respect for the multitude of Canadian citizens who have made the often courageous choice to choose Canada as their home.

Furthermore, it also taught me great respect for the hundreds of thousands of labourers who have worked in the lonely outposts of Canada, over many years building our nation.

Dr. Bradwin’s PhD thesis was published as a book entitled the bunkhouse man and I would like to quote several of his thoughts which have inspired me over the years:

The man of the bunkhouse is ever found in the vanguard. He occupies the outposts. Trench by trench he assails the ramparts in nature’s vastness.

The labour of the camp man is very real. He does not write epics on sheets of paper, nor are his personal achievements recorded in the archives, but he makes of the winds and the snows a playfellow.

Such may not be characterized by comely virtues, nor are they always delicate of speech, but they dwell close to the verities. These are not beaten men of a beaten race. A knowledge of this causes one to enter a bunkhouse humbly.

For Dr. Bradwin, who died in 1953, the lives of these labourers possessed a dignity and purpose that few of his contemporaries recognized.

I think of Arthur Maloney who was my mentor and close friend for many years. He was always available to help the most poor and friendless.

The honourable Bill Davis demonstrated that what really mattered in political life was integrity, compassion and accountability. I would also like to thank him for his tremendous support of the Gardens of Justice.

My first Deputy Attorney General Frank Callaghan who later became my Chief Justice was committed to the maintenance of integrity as the hallmark of the justice system. My last Deputy Attorney General, now Justice Archie Campbell, has been a great source of wisdom over the years. He is critically ill and our thoughts are very much with him tonight.

I have indeed been privileged to have worked with the judges on the trial bench and on the Court of Appeal who are passionately committed to serving the public through the crafting of just decisions.

I shall always be particularly grateful to my colleagues on the Court of Appeal for their individual and collective wisdom, their support and encouragement and the respect that they bring to the court through their daily efforts with respect to their decisions and their teaching in Canada and internationally.

In speaking about the people who helped me along the way my lawyer father was an inspiration to my brother Bill and myself. I regret so much that Bill is no longer with us and I miss him hugely. My father’s own career was cut short by serious illness but for him the law was a tremendous passion.

In 1945, in the Canadian Bar Review he wrote that “wherever there is liberty there must be law, for freedom unrestrained descends to license. The lawyer is the medium through which the law reaches the people and the highest honour and integrity must mark the calling which deals with the rights, privileges and liberties of the people”.

Our father taught his sons the importance of the qualities of generousity, courage, humour and above all, integrity. For him, life was a process whereby how you get there is usually more important than getting there. Success is incremental, not a quick fix and it must be earned, built layer upon respected layer.

An independent bar is, of course, a cornerstone of any democracy because the advocate has the professional responsibility to deal with the rights and responsibilities of the individual person.

History has recorded many courageous advocates and for many, Nelson Mandela’s speech at the Revonia trial of 1963 in South Africa stands as a pantheon to courageous advocacy. His concluding words were:

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realized and if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

While there are few advocates who have or will have an opportunity to face the challenges of a Nelson Mandela, we nevertheless take huge pride in the fact that he is a fellow lawyer.

It was a very different profession in my early years. Women and representatives of minority cultures were a tiny minority. Women were seldom even on juries. Until 1967 there was no fee for service the legal aid plan with the result that many accused were unrepresented and legal aid clinics were some distance away.

The first human rights code in Canada was not created until 1962 in Ontario. An entrenched Charter of Rights was seldom mentioned and in 1970 the War Measures Act was implemented with minimal opposition or criticism from the legal profession in Canada.

The 1970’s fortunately witnessed the entrance into the legal profession of many women and cultural minorities, dramatically strengthening the profession. However, the profession does not always provide a level playing field for some groups and we therefore all have a responsibility to provide true equality of opportunity.

The entrenchment of a Charter of Rights in our patriated constitution has, of course, created a dramatic new era in the administration of justice. Our human rights culture has been greatly strengthened with an emphasis on equality and respect for the dignity of the individual.

However, on such occasions as this, it is perhaps appropriate that we also recognize the importance of reflecting on where the path of the law may take us. The law, of course, monitors and manages human behaviour. However, it is difficult to predict what behaviour will continue to be controlled by the law in a world that has few, if any, absolutes.

It is also hard to know of behaviour that has forever, and in every culture, been absolutely prohibited or absolutely permissable. One can only think of many acts readily acceptable in today’s world that were criminally sanctioned fifty or fewer years ago. Other conduct, for example, environmental standards, building codes and Charter and human rights legislation that were non-existent fifty years ago are now common place and supported by the public. What is crucially important is that we continue to have a well-educated and committed legal profession to assist in the creation of paths of law which will lead us in the right directions with a fundamental commitment to serving the public interest.

I would therefore like to conclude my remarks by outlining briefly the reasons why I feel very privileged to have had a career in the law.

Lawyers have the ability to analyze, to pull things together, to simplify, to clarify and to persuade. Lawyers know they can only achieve a good result if they listen carefully and fully understand the interests and motives of their clients and also their opponents.

Lawyers are resilient and when faced with sudden change or temporary disaster, they show a remarkable ability to adapt and to survive.

Lawyers generally know when to settle and when to fight. Lawyers should be willing to compromise whenever it is reasonable. When lawyers do fight in the interests of their clients it should be done without personalizing the conflict and when the going gets tough, lawyers should show grace under pressure.

When lawyers hear the call to public service, they answer that call through politics or community service or legal education or legal aid or pro bono work or work with law associations. Most importantly, they harness the enduring power of legal ideas in the service of their clients and their communities.

While lawyers have a remarkable capacity for hard work, it is equally important that they conserve their energy by pacing themselves and by absorbing themselves in interests other than law.

Lawyers should, in particular, enjoy the camaraderie of the bar and take genuine pleasure in the company of their colleagues. Lawyers should become well-rounded people enjoying extracurricular activities such as painting, sailing or sports and, if absolutely necessary, golf. And most importantly lawyers should always keep their families at the core of the lives. My wife Ria and I will be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary next week and she and our children have been absolutely crucial to my own happiness.

As I conclude, the profession of the law brings to mind the words of Harrison Tweed, a leader of the American bar who was in the front lines for the struggle for racial equality and equal justice, his words are carved on a marble archway in the New York lawyers club:

I have a high opinion of lawyers. With all their faults, they stack up well against those in every other occupation of profession. Lawyers are better to work with or play with or fight with or drink with, than most other varieties of humankind.

From the moment that I entered law school, I was taught to regard law as a helping profession. As I look back on the past fifty years, I have not changed my mind in that respect. Whether lawyers or not, we all have an opportunity to make a positive difference. In this context I would like to conclude with the words of my late good friend Ian Scott, who wrote in the prologue of his autobiography:

We have no assurances in life, no guarantees that we will be healthy, enjoy a long life, or be able to control our destiny. What we can control is our attitude. We can still strive to make a difference.

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