CBA President’s Dinner

  • February 13, 2019

There are a number of perks as CBA President. I have travelled across the country and abroad, meeting fascinating people I would not otherwise ever meet and seeing places that I might otherwise never have seen.

One of the biggest perks, to my mind, is the ability to choose the recipient of the President’s Award. Sometimes when a person has impressed us with his or her skill or prowess we say they ought to get a medal. As president, I can actually give them one. Well, not a medal, but an award. The President’s Award recognizes the significant contribution of a Canadian jurist to the legal profession, to the CBA or to the public life of Canada.

This year’s honoree has contributed to all three: by believing that precedent is “not a straitjacket that condemns the law to stasis,” by giving clarity to court decisions through consensus-building, by ardently upholding and promoting the rule of law, and by bringing humanity to some of the most important court rulings of our age.

Recipients of this award have made significant and diverse contributions to the law. From our first honoree, the Honorable Emmett Hall, to our most recent, Senator Murray Sinclair, President's Award winners have shaped Canada.

Over our history, the CBA has stood for two core principles: an independent judiciary and Bar and promoting access to justice.  Who has embodied these dual ideals more passionately than the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin?  To my mind, the answer is no one, which is why I am proud to present Justice McLachlin with the 2019 CBA President’s Award tonight.

There must be something in the water in Pincher Creek, Alberta. That small town 200 kilometres south of Calgary has produced no fewer than four superior court judges. Beverley McLachlin Drive honours one of the town’s most successful citizens.

As a child, the Right Honorable Beverley McLachlin was a lover of stories – and still is, as those of you who read her debut novel will know. She was not only a voracious reader, she was an avid learner – in part because she knew instinctively that education would be her ticket.

Called to the bar in 1969 in Alberta, and in British Columbia two years later, she practised law for five years before becoming a professor in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Law in 1974. Her judicial career began in April 1981, with an appointment to the bench at Vancouver County Court. She was on a fast track: eight years later to the month she was sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Not quite 11 years after that, in January 2000, she became the country’s first female Chief Justice.  By the time of her retirement in 2017, Ms. McLachlin had become the longest serving Chief Justice in Canadian history.

Ms. McLachlin came to the court a few years after the repatriation of the Constitution, and the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and as such has been an important part of the jurisprudence that has grown up around both documents.

She has played a role in shaping our understanding of the constitution and our rights many times since 1989, and especially in her nearly 18 years as Chief Justice. Her court took on questions that helped define how Canadians think about themselves, helped define the Canadian ethos. The Bedford case on prostitution; the Insite case, in which the court ruled that keeping Vancouver’s injection clinic open was a matter of fundamental justice; the reference on gay marriage: these cases and a host of others showed a court applying a new generation’s reality to the law and infusing it with its own perspective.

Throughout her hundreds of authored decisions, Ms. McLachlin demonstrated her balance and humanity.  Tonight, I highlight those words that I will most remember.  Justice McLachlin wrote in dissent in Rodriguez: “Security of the person has an element of personal autonomy, protecting the dignity and privacy of individuals with respect to decisions concerning their own body.  It is part of the persona and dignity of the human being that he or she have the autonomy to decide what is best for his or her body.”  That was in 1993, and 12 years later a unanimous court adopted this principle in Carter paving the way for medical assistance in dying legislation a year later.

In her final decision in Trinity Western, she wrote: “We cannot, on the one hand, acknowledge the deep sincerity of the belief in a religious practice and then, on the other, doubt that sincerity by calling the practice relatively insignificant.”  She went on to state: “TWU’s insistence on the mandatory Covenant is a discriminatory practice. It imposes burdens on LGBTQ people on the sole basis of their sexual orientation. Married heterosexual law students can have sexual relations, while married LGBTQ students cannot. The Covenant singles out LGBTQ people as less worthy of respect and dignity than heterosexual people, and reinforces negative stereotypes against them.”

These balanced statements are the written epitome of the scales of justice form that the President’s Award takes.  Finally, I note that it was then-Chief Justice McLachlin who gave Royal Assent to the Civil Marriage Act on July 20, 2005, extending the legal capacity for marriage for civil purposes to same-sex couples in order to reflect values of tolerance, respect and equality.  As a father, I thank you for this gift to my daughters and all present and future Canadian generations.  After all, love is love.

In her time on the high court Ms. McLachlin has been a member and friend of the CBA. She was a popular guest and speaker at our annual CBA Legal Conference – where each year the same journalist asked the same question, “When are you going to retire?” and Ms. McLachlin would smile graciously and mention that she was still in good health. She also was a sought-after speaker at other CBA conferences, valued for her breadth of knowledge, incisive argument and animated delivery. The rhetorical lessons learned in her childhood studying and debating scripture, and in university studying philosophy, are obvious in the clarity of her written decisions and in her speeches.

Ms. McLachlin has been a groundbreaker in many ways. Although she came to the legal profession at a time when not many women were entering it, she says she never really experienced discrimination based on her gender. I suspect it might be true to say that she never let it hold her back.

Ms. McLachlin: in recognition of what you’ve brought to the profession, the standard to which you’ve held the practise of law and the interpretation of our establishing documents, and your contributions to the CBA, I am pleased and honoured to present to you this year’s President’s Award.