After starting out at a law firm that has produced what seems like an unusually high number of prominent judges, it’s perhaps not a surprise to see Justice George Strathy become Ontario’s new chief justice, a position that has been open since last December when Warren Winkler retired.
After finishing law school at the University of Toronto, Strathy, whose first full day in the chief’s job is today, articled at MacKinnon McTaggart in Toronto, a firm he estimates has seen the likes of about eight or nine judges, including former Ontario Court of Appeal associate chief justice Bert MacKinnon and other distinguished judges such as Justice Robert Sharpe of the appeal court and former Supreme Court of Canada justice Ian Binnie.
“It was a bit of a cradle for the judiciary,” says Strathy of the firm where he spent his early years of practice.
Strathy becomes chief justice after serving for just over a year at the Ontario Court of Appeal. He joined the appeal court in April 2013 after five years on the Ontario Superior Court bench in Toronto where he had a reputation for handling a good share of class action cases. Before that, he specialized in civil litigation with a particular emphasis on maritime and transportation law at Strathy & Isaacs in Toronto.
“It was a surprise,” he says of Friday’s announcement of the appointment by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “There were all sorts of really qualified people who were available as possibilities.”
He adds: “I was excited and delighted when it happened. It’s a great honour.”
Strathy, who was born in Toronto but then spent his early years in Montreal and later the Bahamas for a period of time, says he had a bit of luck as a judge when it came to handling a good portion of the class action files at Ontario’s Superior Court.
“I think as a result of that, I got some interesting, complex cases and had some prominent lawyers appearing in front of me,” he says, citing the overtime, Tim Hortons franchise, and Green v. Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce class actions as some of the major cases he handled during his time on the Superior Court bench.
As a lawyer, Strathy notes he also had some significant cases early in his career that took him to places such as the Supreme Court. Just six years in, for example, he acted pro bono on an environmental law case that eventually reached the top court.
“It kind of demonstrated to me the significance of taking pro bono work and the significance of taking a chance,” he says.
As for his priorities in his new job, the married father of five daughters says he’ll be taking time to consult before deciding what they’ll be but notes access to justice is an obvious concern.
“I think everyone agrees that that is the paramount concern in the profession,” he says, noting the challenge of making progress at a time of budgetary constraints. “I think we just have to get creative in the area,” he says.
He adds it’s time to move from talking about what the problems are to finding solutions and getting results.
Strathy wasn’t the only notable judicial appointment Friday. Harper also appointed Federal Court of Appeal Justice Robert Mainville to the Quebec Court of Appeal to replace Justice A.R. Hilton on July 1. The appointment has already stirred controversy with lawyer Rocco Galati challenging it as unconstitutional. Galati, who’s launching a court application, says Quebec judges must be from the Quebec bar, an issue he successfully argued in his challenge of Justice Marc Nadon’s appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In addition to the appointment of Strathy and Mainville, the federal government also filled a number of other judicial positions across the country. They included:
Public Prosecution Service of Canada lawyer Larry Ackerl to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton, replacing Justice R.S. Brown following his appointment to the Alberta Court of Appeal in March.
Felesky Flynn’s Blair Dixon to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary. He replaces Justice R.G. Stevens following his death in May.
Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Cindy Bourgeois to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, replacing Justice L.L. Oland on June 22 when she becomes a supernumerary judge.
Nova Scotia Provincial Court Justice Jamie Campbell to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. He replaces Bourgeois on June 22.
Quebec Superior Court Justice Mark Schrager to the Quebec Court of Appeal, replacing new Supreme Court of Canada Justice Clément Gascon.
Quebec Superior Court Justice Jean-Francois Emond to the Quebec Court of Appeal, replacing Justice J.J. Lévesque following his move to supernumerary status in February.
Quebec Crown prosecutor Michel Fortin to the Quebec Superior Court, replacing Justice Emond.
Lawyer Donald Layh to the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench, replacing Justice J.L.G. Pritchard after she moved to supernumerary status last year.
Henry Brown, recently retired from Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, to the Federal Court, replacing Justice S.J. Harrington after he became a supernumerary judge in April.
Keith Boswell of Stewart McKelvey to the Federal Court. On June 30, he replaces Justice J.A. O’Keefe after he became a supernumerary judge.
Baker & McKenzie LLP’s Alan Diner to the Federal Court, replacing Justice J.A. Snider following her resignation last year.