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In Case You Missed It: Former Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin at Alumni Weekend

Karey Thomson (3L)

On September 22, the University of Alberta hosted a talk with the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. This talk was part of the annual Alumni weekend. Chief Justice McLachlin graduated from the University of Alberta Faculty of Law in 1968. In 2000, she became the first woman appointed to the role of Chief Justice of Canada, a position which she held for 17 years, making her the longest sitting Chief Justice in our history (the audience erupted in applause when this fact was read out). Interviewing Justice McLachlin was Justice Sheila Greckol of the Alberta Court of Appeal. Justice Greckol received her LLB from this Faculty in 1975. She was appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench in 2001, and to the Court of Appeal in 2016. In case you missed it, here’s an overview of what was said.

The interview only lasted an hour, but it covered a number of topics, starting with Chief Justice McLachlin’s experiences as a child growing up in rural Alberta. McLachlin recalled that as a kid she was a voracious reader. Her local library was open two days a week and she would be back for new material every time.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta she had trouble organizing her ideas, but she credits Philosophy with giving the tools she needed to form effective arguments and express her ideas. It was one of her professors who first suggested to her that she should study law. This was the 1960’s, and it had never occurred to her that women could be lawyers—she didn’t know any women in law. So, she wrote a letter to the Dean of Law asking him for some information about the program. I guess it was a much simpler time back then because he wrote back to her saying, “you’re in.”

McLachlin was appointed to the judiciary in 1981, and to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1989. When asked about the highlights of her career she said the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which became law in 1982, made those early years a “monumental time for opening up and developing Canadian law” and “an enormous jurisprudential adventure.” Aboriginal rights were also at the forefront of Canadian jurisprudence at that time. McLachlin found it to be “a great satisfaction” to participate in creating that body of law.

Justice Greckol asked what her thoughts were regarding the impacts of colonialism and cultural genocide on Indigenous peoples in Canada and what courts could do in terms of reconciliation.  McLachlin responded that the courts must continue to articulate Aboriginal rights and develop a roadmap to the way forward. In particular, she noted that courts have to be open and receptive to the perspectives of Indigenous peoples and bringing Indigenous values into the law. She noted that in developing a more holistic view of justice which goes beyond mere punishment, there is much the courts could learn from Indigenous legal traditions in Canada.

McLachlin also conceded that access to justice is an important issue in Canada and that “society has outpaced the justice system” in the sense that the courts are currently too difficult to access, and the process takes too long. In her view, the way forward is two pronged: first, there needs to be a serious effort to ask ourselves if the court system is functioning as it should, and if not, then we must change outdated rules, make better use of technology, and develop new procedures. Second, she called for more alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, noting that we need faster, more expeditious alternatives. In particular, she noted the use of online services in the United States.

The interview also touched on McLachlin’s new book, Full Disclosure, which is a fictional legal drama. Justice Greckol asked if the heroine was a version of McLachlin, representing “an unfulfilled dream of being a criminal lawyer?” McLachlin responded that she always found criminal law fascinating and that she wanted to create strong, feminine heroine—not just the survivor of a grim, dystopian world, but a strong woman in the world we know. “She is not me, absolutely not,” she said, but noted that when you write fiction, it all come from your own consciousness, so in a way it all came from her life and her experiences.

Regarding her current projects, in particular her appointment to the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong, she responded “I love judging.” Following her retirement from the Supreme Court of Canada, she can no longer be a judge in Canada, so this appointment is a way for her to continue doing what she loves. In any case, she noted, she only sits for four weeks of the year. Her other goals for this time of her life are to focus on pro bono work both nationally and internationally, and “a little bit of writing.” Justice Greckol asked, of her personal hobbies which include gardening and cooking, what does she value most in life? McLachlin answered, of course family and friends, but also having been able to contribute to society and the world, and to make people’s lives better, has been the greatest gratification a person could look for.