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.
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.
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 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.
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.