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Carol Baird Ellan’s next chapter

Cross Examined
|Written By Jennifer Brown
Carol Baird Ellan’s next chapter
Photo: Kim Stallknecht

In her years on the bench, Carol Baird Ellan had a front row seat to the challenges facing the underprivileged in society. Now she wants to try and effect change from a different perch — elected politician. “I have a passion for the justice system. There are things I’d like to see changed there and just looking around me right now things need to change. We’re not doing our bit for the environment and things are becoming unaffordable for youth here — someone needs to do something and I thought I could be that person,” she says.

At a nomination meeting Feb. 21, Baird Ellan won the NDP nomination for the new federal riding of Burnaby North-Seymour — historically a mix of NDP and Conservative voters. The Burnaby portion has typically voted NDP with the North Vancouver area a strong Conservative hold. It’s expected to be a tight race in the riding this time around. In the last election, Burnaby-Seymour was 44 per cent Conservative and almost 36 per cent NDP. “We are thinking that perhaps some of that Conservative vote has been watered down since then,” Baird Ellan tells Canadian Lawyer.

In 2000, Baird Ellan became the first female Provincial Court chief judge in British Columbia. Her time on the bench saw a system slipping into crisis. She was chief judge when the B.C. Liberal government closed many courthouses without consulting the judiciary or the public. One of those courthouses was in Burnaby, where she had both prosecuted and sat as a judge. “I fought against those closures and we won back half of them, but we weren’t able to save Burnaby’s,” she says. “It gave me a little taste of the political arena because I was outside the comfort zone of a sitting judge when I was dealing with government on that. There were cuts and I was striving to exert the independence of the judiciary — it’s a fine line judges are required to walk when they speak out about those kinds of issues.”

When she retired from the bench in 2012, Baird Ellan went back into private practice with her husband Tim. She did some pro bono and offered discounted law work in the family arena in reaction to her view of how the legal system wasn’t really serving people.

She began her career with two years as a tax lawyer at Thorsteinssons LLP in the early 1980s, then she became a Crown prosecutor from 1983 to 1993 in the Lower Mainland. In 1993, she was appointed a judge to the Provincial Court of B.C.

In her time on the bench, she faced many tough decisions, often involving families who had lost loved ones. “No sentence I would hand down would ever really make it better for them — that was always the hard part,” she recalls.

One of her most memorable cases as chief judge involved a fellow provincial court judge in Prince George — David William Ramsay — who was sent to jail for preying on young girls. Ramsay pleaded guilty on May 3, 2004, to sexual assault causing bodily harm. The incidents occurred from 1992 to 2001. Some of the girls were as young as 12. He was sentenced to seven years in jail in 2004. Ramsay died in 2008.

“There was a complaint that a judge in Prince George was involved in serial sexual abuse of young First Nations women who were appearing before him,” recalls Baird Ellan. “It came to us out of the blue — one of these women had collapsed on the courthouse steps upon learning this judge would be the one to decide whether she got to keep her child. It came to me in that form and I received a copy of a police report and it appeared there [was] more than one.”

Several women alleged Ramsay picked them up after court, took them to a remote location and brutally assaulted them. He told them if they told anyone things would go badly for them next time they appeared in court before him. “We were blown away. The police investigation had been open for three years and had not moved forward because the women wouldn’t sign statements, so I had to decide what to do about that. I decided it was time to listen to the young women, so I called him and told him to go home. Learning that he wasn’t sitting anymore, the women signed statements and there were more of them than we knew and he was ultimately charged, pled guilty, and went to jail.”

During her time as a judge, Baird Ellan formed the view more support for women and families in crisis was needed. “My husband and I volunteer in an organization that supports marriages in crisis. I’d like to see more emphasis on that kind of support for people as opposed to an emphasis on minimum sentencing,” she says. “I think if you spend the money on people at that level you will see fewer going up through the criminal system. I’m concerned when governments seem to be shortsighted in that respect and put more into criminal sentencing than they do into the family support systems.”

Affordable childcare and housing are also big issues for her, as is the environment. One of the most controversial environment issues in her area is Kinder Morgan’s plan to expand its pipeline in B.C. The process is now being challenged by the City of Burnaby. “With the falling price of oil, it may not be as pressing an issue for the riding in the long term, but I would like to see us develop alternative sources of energy rather than putting all this emphasis on fossil fuel forms of energy, and moving forward we need to comply with our obligations on the world stage,” she says.

Baird Ellan is not the first judge to run for political office but some academics challenge the idea. Emmett Macfarlane, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo says the legal community has a tendency to view judicial independence as a one-way street, when he emphasizes “it’s a two-way street.”

The author of Governing from the Bench, The Supreme Court of Canada and the Judicial Role, Macfarlane says: “I think there are legitimate concerns about what activities judges and former judges get involved with. I’m uncomfortable seeing retired judges engaged in political and partisan activities. I think while there may not need be rules prescribing the activity, I think there are legitimate concerns about what it does to perception regarding court behaviour.”

The danger, he says, is it could lead people to question judgments she made while on the bench. “I don’t know anything about this particular judge but we have seen lately retired Supreme Court judges signing on to petitions with respect to the Quebec Values Charter and the judges who signed on to the letter regarding national security policies. These are all in the same category of behaviour that sheds some concern about even retired judges engaging in what could be perceived as partisan or political behaviour,” he says.

Ellan Baird says she could see it being an issue if she was a judge returning to a prior political life and there was a suggestion during her time on the bench there was some partiality shown, but notes that is not her situation. “I certainly wasn’t political before I went to the bench — there’s 20 years there where you’re basically not a member of any political party. For me it was a matter of sitting down and looking at what I could do next and which party spoke most strongly to me,” she says.

“Judges are required to be impartial and independent. That’s preserved while someone is on the bench.”

  • Engaged Citizen

    Chris Budgell
    I would like to expand a little on Emmett Macfarlane's point. In Canada all judges are appointed for "life" (which in practise means to age 75). This is a convention that I would guess has a very long history. The near impossibility of removing judges from the bench reinforces the understanding that this is a commitment. Those seeking an appointment are soliciting the benefit of a commitment, and should likewise be making a lifetime commitment.

    Perhaps it is time to reconsider the wisdom of the lifetime appointment convention.

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