An Interview with Beverley McLachlin, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada

I was delighted when Shelley Youngblut, CEO & Creative Ringleader of Wordfest, asked if I would like to interview Beverley McLachlin, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, on stage before a live audience about her new book Truth Be Told: My Journey through Life and the Law. 

Before we talk about the interview, let me tell you that Beverley McLachlin is not only an icon of Canadian jurisprudence; she’s also brilliant, warm, witty, and thoughtful.    

Beverley McLachlin, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada

After we’d arrived and introduced ourselves, Shelley and her team left us in the Green Room.  We chatted about her first novel Full Disclosure.  She started the book in the 1980s but put it aside because of she was “busy at work”.  No kidding!  She returned to it when she was about to retire.  She said the process of updating it was fascinating because so much of what we take for granted, (eg cell phones) didn’t exist back then.  She made her main character, a defence lawyer, grittier and added elements reflecting her love for Vancouver and West Coast art.  The novel was completed in a year and instantly became a national best seller.  You should read it. 

Soon it was time for us to take our places on stage under the bright lights with a low coffee table between us and begin what felt to me like a private conversation in front of a sold out audience sitting quietly in the dark. 

The interview

We started where the book starts, with her childhood.  The former Chief Justice, oh let’s just call her Beverley, was a “free range” child born and raised in Pincher Creek, Alberta.  Her mother told her “school will teach you everything you need to know.”  Beverley needed to know everything, so she augmented her public school education with books from the local library which she credits with saving her from a “premature intellectual death.”

Her education was supposed to prepare her for the future, however the only occupations deemed suitable for a woman at that time—teacher, nurse, secretary, telephone operator, and waitress—didn’t interest her.  Besides she’d been told that due to her “low alertness score” she would not be a very good telephone operator or waitress.  She did have an extremely high reading retention score but what good was that to a woman.  (A lot of good as it turned out!)

Beverley studied philosophy and law at the University of Alberta.  Women made up 10% of her law class.    She was a brilliant student (my words, not hers) and was the Gold Medalist in her year.  Every law firm in Edmonton should have been clamouring for her to join them as an articling student, however in her first interview she was asked “why do you want to work?”   The question perplexed her until she discovered the unwritten rule that a woman, once married, should give up her career and become a full time wife and mother.  So much for seven years of education.     

She worked in private practice before joining the faculty at the UBC law school where she taught evidence.

She was appointed to the County Court in Vancouver in 1981 and nine years later was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.  She spent 28 years at the Supreme Court, 17 of them as the Chief Justice—she said the position hands you the reins of power, it’s only later that you discover the reins aren’t attached to anything.  Her goal was to do everything possible to help each judge be the best he or she could be.

Along the way she married Rory McLachlin and had a son, Angus.  Rory developed cancer and died at 47, her son Angus was 12.  When Brian Mulroney called to offer her a position on the Supreme Court of Canada she was reluctant to take it given all that her little family had gone through, but Angus encouraged her to accept the offer. 

Eventually Beverly remarried, this time to Frank McArdle, who proposed on an airline flight over the plane’s PA system. 

Beverley is adept at weaving stories about her personal life with observations about justice and fairness.    

Discrimination

Discrimination can be overt or subtle.  In her book Beverley said the world is divided into two realms, one of men and one of women.  “Women were occasionally allowed to venture into the realm of men, but only to the extent required to accomplish what the men wanted or needed.”   She describes her obsession with perfection (which she says is a uniquely female preoccupation) as flowing from the feeling that women were allowed into a man’s world by grace, but to keep their place they had to be perfect.    

Discrimination can be brutally overt.  In her book Beverley describes the injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples—when she was growing up public washrooms still displayed “No Indians” signs—and credits her family for not preaching inclusion but living it.   

The Cases

When asked which of her cases was the most memorable, Beverley said there were many but highlighted the cases brought by Indigenous peoples struggling to protect the rights that have been guaranteed to them under Section 35 of The Constitution Act. 

She said if she had to pick a single case it would be the Reference re: Secession of Quebec which held that Quebec could not unilaterally secede from Canada but if a reference produced a clear majority in favour of secession, then the federal government would need to meet with Quebec to determine the terms of separation. 

The Nadon/Harper incident

As a rule, judges do not respond to public criticism, however when Prime Minister Harper publicly accused Ms McLachlin of interfering with the appointment of Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court, Ms McLaclin was forced to respond.  She issued a press release saying she’d done nothing wrong and setting out the facts.  She invited Mr Harper to respond with additional facts if he had any.  He did not.  The International Commission of Jurists (and the legal community as a whole) examined the facts and concluded Ms McLachlin had not acted improperly.  It called upon Mr Harper to apologize.  When I asked whether Mr Harper apologized, Beverley said no, but he always gives her a big hug when he sees her. 

The morning of our interview the Globe quoted Mr Nadon as saying he had more respect for the US Supreme Court than the Canadian Supreme Court and that Canadian “activist” judges should be more like American “originalist” judges who interpret statutes in the way the original drafters intended.  (An originalist interpretation would have killed legislation allowing physician assisted dying, decriminalizing abortion and recognizing Charter protections for the LBGTQ community). 

Beverley said people who support originalism don’t understand that such an interpretation of our Constitution would turn our world upside down because the Constitution as originally framed gave tremendous power to the federal government at the expense of the provinces.  She also said the complaint against “activist” judges is often used by someone who just doesn’t like a court’s decision. 

The perks of power

The Chief Justice is the third highest ranking official in Canada, after the Governor General and the Prime Minister.  Consequently, Beverley and Frank attended many ceremonial dinners.  She described attending a Golden Jubilee dinner for the Queen and discovering at the last minute that she was to be seated right next to Her Majesty.   Had she known she would have prepared a number of conversational gambits, luckily as a child she was obsessed with Princess Elizabeth and drew upon this knowledge to ask the Queen about her dogs and her education and where her horse was buried.  The two of them hit it off and every time someone tried to interject the Queen responded politely and then returned to their conversation with a regal “Now Beverley…” (Beverley does an amazingly good impression of the Queen).

All too quickly it was time to wrap it up.  I closed with a quote from Beverley’s book where she said, “Canada’s justice system is not perfect, but it is among the best in the world.”  

I thanked Beverley McLachlin then and I’d like to thank her again now for having the tenacity, courage and intelligence to make it so. 

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23 Responses to An Interview with Beverley McLachlin, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada

  1. jillbrowne says:

    This is great, Susan!

    See you tomorrow 😉

    On Sun, 6 Oct 2019 at 16:56, Susan on the Soapbox wrote:

    > susanonthesoapbox posted: ” I was delighted when Shelley Youngblut, CEO & > Creative Ringleader of Wordfest, asked if I would like to interview > Beverley McLachlin, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, on > stage before a live audience about her new book Truth Be Tol” >

  2. Oh my gosh. What a fantastic experience for you. I am reading Ms. McLachlin’s book now and Im really enjoying it. Im not going to mention anything about an individual not having the respect to apologize, because I want to celebrate this fine woman’s accomplishments. She is a true inspiration. Bravo. 👏👏👏 Thank you so much for sharing this experience.

    • Joanna, Mr Harper’s behavior leaves a lot to be desired. When Beverley McLachlin retired she was feted at one final event to recognize her stellar service at the Supreme Court of Canada. Two former governors general, Adrienne Clarkson and David Johnston, and three prime ministers, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Justin Trudeau spoke. Stephen Harper was not there. Maybe he had important work to do elsewhere or maybe he was in a snit and couldn’t bring himself to say anything nice about one of the best Chief Justices this country has ever seen.

  3. papajaxn says:

    THANK you for sharing this moment in history! Fully alive with grace and integrity. B J

    • B.J. you’re very welcome. It’s not often we’re given an opportunity to talk to someone who has made such a significant positive contribution to Canadian law and society. I’ll be eternally grateful to Shelley Youngblut for giving me that opportunity.

  4. david swann says:

    McLachlin is a national treasure – thankyou.
    And so are you, Susan!!

  5. Carl HUNT says:

    Excellent interview and I hope you get more opportunities to chat with great Canadians.
    Thanks

    • Thank you Carl. Your comment made me think about which great Canadians I’d like to interview if given the chance. Assuming current politicians are off the list, who would we ordinary folk like to talk to?

      • Dwayne says:

        Susan: Maybe talk to Albertan and Canadian musicians, actors, or astronauts. That would be cool to do. Alberta alone has famous musicians and actors, as well as two astronauts in training.

  6. Dwayne says:

    Susan: Thanks again for another great blog.

    • You’re welcome Dwayne. Given all the destruction visited upon us by self serving politicians it was nice to talk to someone whose goal was simply to deliver justice and fairness for all Canadians.

  7. diamondwalker says:

    .. outstanding post.. merci beaucoup !

    • diamondwalker: if I knew how to say you’re very welcome in French I’d do so now. The fact I don’t means I need to take French classes, after all we have two official languages in our country.

  8. Liane Sharkey says:

    Agree with everyone above! I was already eager to read her novel and now even more so….and even more eager, I would add, to read more interviews by Susan of other great Canadians! Well done, Ms. Soapbox!

    • Liane, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Beverley McLachlin writes in such an unassuming way that if you blink you’ll miss some important nuggets. For example when she was talking about discrimination she referred to the fact that sometimes people reacted to her German sounding maiden name (Gietz), and she soon learned what it felt like to be equal but also “on probation”. I thought that was a very good description of how some “old stock” Canadians treat newcomers.

  9. So wonderful … a woman who grew up in those times and went right to the top. She sounds like an intelligent, gracious woman.

    • Linda, she’s intelligent, gracious and down to earth. She tells a story in her book about digging in the garden by the wall that separated her house from the formidable house next door. One of the employees of the neighbouring house thought she was the gardener and asked what it was like working for those people. McLachlin replied something to the effect that Madame is quite nice, but Monsieur can be a bit difficult.

  10. Conrad Volk says:

    It’s appropriate that McLaughlan was seated next to an unelected monarch because that’s how she behaved when she was a judge!

    • Conrad, I completely disagree with your comment. One of the real strengths of Canada’s justice system is it is less partisan than the American justice system because we don’t elect judges and prosecutors. McLachlin was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada by a Conservative prime minister (Brian Mulroney). She was promoted to chief justice by a Liberal prime minister (Jean Chretien). The position of chief justice does not carry any power over the rest of the judges who are free to decide cases in accordance with their understanding of the law as it applies to the facts before them. SCC decisions are made by the entire bench, not one person so it is wrong to say McLachlin acted like an unelected monarch, she was simply one voice among nine. The reason some people are uncomfortable with the SCC decisions is because they treat the law as “a living tree” that reflects how society is changing, as opposed to the American approach adopted by judges like Antonin Scalia who cling to “originalism”. I prefer judges who interpret the law in a way that lets us move forward to meet the challenges of the future than staying stuck in past and missing the point entirely.

  11. Carlos Beca says:

    In my great and unmatched wisdom – I have to agree about this great lady. I think in the future she will be even more recognized and missed. Finding integrity, honesty, intelligence and love for Canada and its institutions is way more difficult than people think. You just have to look at the quality of politicians, leaders of the two major parties to realize how far down we have come and, worse of all , accepted it.
    I have great respect for Beverly Mclachlin. In fact, the Supreme Court is the only institution I still trust in our system. Not sure for how long. We are slowly loosing trust in the system and it will be a very difficult wake up when people realize what it is like to live in country without it. Regaining it is almost impossible.

    • Carlos, I’ve been thinking the same thing–our own institutions are under attack just like those in the US and the UK because politicians seem to think they’re not bound by the rules and conventions that keep everything in balance.
      McLachlin says Canada was fundamentally changed when it adopted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as part of Constitution Act 1982. It went from being a parliamentary democracy to a constitutional democracy which meant all laws and government actions would have to comply with the Charter (and other guarantees) and the courts had the power to determine whether the government had overstepped its bounds. Politicians like Harper resent being told by the courts that they’ve screwed up. I suspect this is why he agrees with Boris Johnson that the UK Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to nullify Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament for five weeks was wrong.
      These guys don’t seem to understand they’re not the king and they can’t do whatever they want in the name of whatever ideology they profess to hold.
      Carlos, I have great faith in the judges sitting on the Supreme Court of Canada. They can keep the political forces in Canada in balance, what they need is people like Toronto lawyer Rocco Galati who launched the action challenging Harper’s appointment of Marc Nadon to the bench, to ensure questionable government actions are put before the court for review.

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