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Tribute to Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin on the occasion of her retirement

Writing and Speeches

Tribute to Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin on the occasion of her retirement


Chief Justice, Distinguished guests:

I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin nation.

I think you can all guess what the most important event in my public life was. I’m not even going to ask you... you know. But I don’t think you know that the second most important thing that happened to me in my public life is that Beverley McLachlin was appointed Chief Justice of Canada four months after I became Governor General!

To me, this was one of the most significant things that could have happened to me for my mandate. I realized “well, we are going to have girl power here in Ottawa, and I am going to have a girl-friend.” I think I could not have expected a better gift from Prime Minister Chrétien!

I had known about Beverley McLachlin ever since she had been appointed to the Supreme Court by Prime Minister Mulroney. Then John Ralston Saul had met her at the Canadian Bar Association meeting in the summer of 1999 where they both spoke. He described her to me as “the most beautiful disguise for a steel trap mind that he’d ever seen.” So, I was properly prepared when I met her. I was not disappointed.

Rarely does public life bring you into intimate contact with people for whom you instantly feel great personal affinity. And in my case, a sharing of a generation’s strivings in the second wave of feminism. It’s not easy to be a woman in public life in Canada. The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin and I have shared different kinds of travails, but we know what sharing means and we know what sisterhood means. Yes, I use that rather dated and old-fashioned word because I think it is really what I have found with her.

I’m going to go on to all the reasons why I think the country should be grateful to her, but I want you to know that one of the most interesting facts about her is that I am sure that she is the only Chief Justice we have ever had who knows how to deliver a calf. I don’t think there is anything more revealing than going to Pincher Creek — which I have done — and seeing that beautiful little town nestled in the foothills of Alberta with a high school named after Matthew Halton, the great CBC war correspondent, and to enter the town through the roadway which is know called Bev McLachlin Drive. I think that Bev McLachlin Drive really says a lot. It says that she comes from there. It says that she is known to everyone there. And it says that she is one of us.

In my years at Rideau Hall, I found that the Chief Justice was a tremendous support and an often hilarious and ironic commentator on public and private events. She never revealed secrets to me, but I revealed lots to her. I knew that I could take her into my confidence at every step. The Chief Justice is the deputy Governor General of Canada and I was always happy to think that she would be the one giving Royal Assent when I was not there. Except just once: I do have to say that I was very sorry that I was not present in 2005 to give Royal Assent to the Bill on Civil Unions in Canada because I was ill. But that little tiny bit of envy I never let show. I accept the fact that you enjoyed bringing that to Royal Assent, and I think you did it for the both of us.

You’ve often said that you’ve been surprised by your own life, which is something I think we share. I don’t think either of us ever had big plans about the fact of where we would end up in life but we kind of went along and it sort of worked out.  Except we both somehow knew it was important to learn French, on the basis that one never knows what might happen and we are a bilingual country!

Ma chère juge en chef, ce que vous avez toujours réussi à accomplir, c’est de nous faire comprendre qu’en tant que Canadiens et Canadiennes la Cour suprême est non seulement une institution canadienne d’une énorme importance, mais qu’elle a aussi un impact majeur sur nos vies à tous. C’est elle qui est la garante de notre processus démocratique. Et vous, pendant les vingt-huit ans où vous avez siégé sur la Cour avez incarné ce principe. Vous avez défié les classements politiques et vous avez fait en sorte que nous soyons à l’aise en tant que citoyens et citoyennes. La cour que vous avez présidée nous a donné confiance dans l’évolution de notre pays.

Beverley McLachlin est une partisane de l’objectivité consciente qui est, en termes simples, la capacité de se mettre à la place de l’autre. Elle est capable de se mettre à la place des autres. Elle sait que la loi n’est pas une simple machine mise en marche pour que se répète ce qui a déjà eu lieu auparavant. 

Quand vous dites ‘la cour appartient au peuple canadien et doit être le reflet du peuple canadien’, vous avez énormément fait pour que cela devienne une réalité. Je sais à quel point la communication est importante pour un ou une Juge en chef. Non seulement est-ce important pour le peuple canadien quant aux jugements émis par la Cour qu’elle préside, mais aussi quant à la façon qu’elle explique ses décisions directement, en personne, et avec sollicitude. Sous sa présidence, la cour a été un lieu collégial où on sert de délicieux repas dans une ambiance civilisée où on converse et on échange.

I believe that we are in a period of what some scholars call “evolutionary democracy” and that in our parliamentary system we must pay attention to the public’s right to be informed. Before she was Chief Justice, Beverley McLachlin stated that “societies governed by the rule of law are marked by a certain ethos of justification... an exercise of public power is only appropriate where it can be justified to citizens in terms of rationality and fairness.”

This Chief Justice understands that law is an organic entity, or, “the living tree”, which grows and evolves with the evolution of societal views. This Chief Justice knows that courts can justify the making of substantial changes to the law if in doing so they reflect clear changes in social values.

I’m so glad that the Chief Justice is a Person. I am so glad that in 1929 all of us women were declared persons, and that we were able to take our place in the power structures of our country.

I’ve been told that in highschool she was discouraged from having hifalutin thoughts about herself and was told that she shouldn’t even try to be a waitress or a telephone operator because her attention span was not long enough! Women of our generation were often told things like that. I was told I would never be anyone’s executive secretary because my typing was terrible...! We managed to grit our teeth and turn our attention to larger goals: it was daunting to be a young woman going into law when she did it – but, boy, did she do it!

It is a wonderful thing to have had a woman as our Chief Justice for 18 years. When you think of what Samuel Johnson said about a woman preaching: “It is like seeing a dog walk on his hind legs: you do not wonder that it is done well, but that it can be done at all.” Beverley McLachlin has shown us how well we can all do. She has been a beacon light for women everywhere as she makes us forget the perfectly stunning fact that there was not a ladies’ washroom in a store in North America until the 1860s, when a department store in New York City installed one, acknowledging the fact that a woman might stay out of her home long enough to have to use the facilities. The struggle for equal opportunity is not over, but she has done so much to nudge it and push it along and that is because she is a true leader.

Women of our generation were grateful to find a place in the hierarchy of power and often we don’t understand that gender discrimination still shapes our work lives. I think Beverley McLachlin has understood it, interiorized it, acted upon it, and has helped to make it irrelevant. On the other hand, she has made it possible for all women to feel that they could aspire to be like her. She defines equality by living it.

In Chief Justice McLachlin’s case, her life — which led her from the ranch to the University of Alberta and then to the Supreme Court of British Columbia before coming to Ottawa — was something that was perhaps not planned, but which happened because what she did she was really good at. She was good at doing her Masters in Philosophy, she was good at law school, and she was good at practicing law, and then she was raised to the Court in British Columbia. All of this while facing the deep personal challenges of being widowed and raising her young son Angus on her own, until the remarkable Frank McCardle became her wise and loving partner.

There is something that is very important to her. You might think it is reading the The Law Review or receiving foreign Chief Justices. No, actually. What she can’t do without, what she can’t ever stop doing, what she plans with obsessive precision and unmitigated passion — is — cooking. She is the most wonderful cook! One of the things we enjoy doing together — besides riding around on her Kobota in the woods — is cooking. She has a pie pan in the shape of Texas and it’s really mouthwatering to see her fill it with her wonderful pastry and then apples. Actually, her recipe for pavlova is one to cherish. It’s the trick with the cream of tartar, of course. Remember you can always trust a woman in power who loves to cook! It is the original and basic managerial activity.

Tout en accomplissant ces hauts faits culinaires, tout en prenant soin de sa famille et en soignant l’image qu’elle occupe dans le pays, elle a fait de l’interprétation de la Charte des droits et libertés un thème dominant de sa carrière. Car l’humanisme particulier de Beverley l’amène à comprendre que notre capacité d’évolution et d’adaptation en tant que pays sera d’une importance vitale pour nous tous à l’avenir.

Even before she became Chief Justice, in 1997 — when her predecessor Antonio Lamer was Chief Justice — she wrote the judgment that has perhaps had one of the greatest influences on our relationship to the Indigenous peoples than any other. It’s the case commonly known as Delgamuukw, which recognized the validity of oral evidence of Indigenous Peoples and establishes the test for Aboriginal title as continuous exclusive occupation from pre-Confederation times. This is a fundamental and huge step in Canada’s relationship with the Indigenous peoples. This was followed by a series of historic decisions over the last twenty years in which the court, led by its Chief Justice, showed all of us the way to restore our relationship with the Indigenous peoples, through justice. It’s up to all Canadians now to follow their lead.                   

The Chief Justice has since been noted in other judgements and in speeches that range from her enlightened and once-controversial comments about the cultural genocide of the Indigenous peoples to the rulings of the Court that show that she understands the Indigenous question from the inside out. A young, bright, blonde girl growing up in the foothills of Alberta, knowing young Indigenous people of her own age perhaps wondered why they didn’t get the chance to attend the University of Alberta and she did. The ability to look at ‘the other’ and see ‘the other’ in a human and equal way marks this jurist out from many others.

She has made the Court and judgments from the Court accessible to Canadian people. The respect for the Court which she has brought about under her tenure is nothing short of remarkable. You can watch it streamed on television, and — as she says — “you can turn on CPAC and watch us in action! Well, action may not be the right word, but you can watch us.”

Now the Supreme Court of Canada may be on Twitter... but you won’t see her tweeting at 4a.m.! That’s the time she’s reading the latest Governor General’s Fiction Award... right before she goes down to exercise in her basement gym. Or, she might be starting to braise a pot-roast for dinner that night.

Elle a un grand talent pour obtenir un consensus et la Cour qu’elle a dirigée a produit un plus grand nombre de jugements signés par la cour – plutôt que par un juge en particulier – que les cours antérieures, soulignant ainsi l’unanimité et projetant une grande clarté juridique. Il y a eu plus d’une douzaine de décisions ‘de la cour’ de la Cour Suprême du Canada : Latimer ; le jugement de 2004 sur le mariage entre personnes du même sexe ; et la décision de 2010 au sujet d’Omar Khadr. Nous connaissons tous ces jugements et ils sont importants pour nous tous en tant que Canadiens, et il est important qu’ils aient tous été ‘signés par la cour’.

We regard the Supreme Court with respect, and respect for our institutions is one of the most important attitudes one must have in a democracy. If any of our institutions – be it Parliament, or the courts — become agencies which we ignore, deride, or disdain, we are in deep trouble as a democracy.

Our Chief Justice has served us for eighteen years. She has broken any number of records and we know that she has done her work and she has done it well. But that will never explain totally why we respect and love this human being. In her work and in her life, she has shown what it is to understand each other in a human and lawful way. She has helped us as Canadians understand the parameters within which we live. And in our treasured Supreme Court she has led us all to learn the limits that human understanding can bring to human behaviour.

Like the people of good will of whom Pablo Neruda spoke in his Nobel acceptance speech, she knows that only “with a burning patience can we conquer the splendid City which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind. In this way, the song will not have been sung in vain.”

For us, Beverley McLachlin has sung the song.