Justice Malcolm Rowe, recently appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, may well be the most Canadian judge ever.
Rowe’s biography is as extraordinary as it is diverse. Born into modest circumstances in Newfoundland shortly after it joined confederation, Rowe has served as a diplomat, professor, author, lawyer, political advisor on Parliament Hill and the senior most public servant in his home province. He once took a punch for John Crosbie — literally — and he has quietly been at the heart of many of Canada’s moments of great drama.
But, remarkably, what makes Rowe such a perfect choice for our top court is what he does outside the office.
Rowe is a man who is passionate about Canada. In an age of cynicism and social fragmentation, he has a burning desire to know his country intimately, invest in its future and make it a better place.
Nothing demonstrates Rowe’s commitment in this regard more than his support of Action Canada, an innovative public-private partnership that infuses promising young Canadians with leadership and public policy skills, shows them the breadth and depth of their country up close and then sends them on their way, hopefully to do great things for us all. Since 2002, Rowe has been among a select group of eminent Canadians supporting the organization, in his case devoting a month a year to mentoring and bonding with an exceptionally wide range of current and future Canadian leaders.
While Action Canada has had remarkable success in fostering Canadian leadership — alumni Terry Beech and Matt DeCourcey are among the youngest members of the current House of Commons — its greatest impact may ironically be coming through the 63-year-old Rowe.
In his application questionnaire for the Supreme Court, Rowe wrote emphatically and expansively about how his experiences working with Action Canada have shaped his appreciation for Canada. He shared how many judges can state that their “deepest sense of the country came from being in the North, in Nunavut, Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Haida Gwaii and Nunatsiavut (Labrador). Listening to Inuit elders in Resolute Bay, Kugluktuk and Pangnirtung or First Nations leaders, such as the seasoned Guujaaw in Skidegate (Haida Gwaii) or the young (Action Canada Fellow) Justin Ferbey in Carcross (Yukon) gives an insight difficult to obtain otherwise.”
While some lament Rowe’s appointment as yet another white male of a certain age, it is hard to imagine any other applicant with greater diversity and firsthand experience in understanding, seeing and — dare I say — feeling Canada than him.
This is a vital quality in Supreme Court Justices. Their work affects us all enormously, but too few justices venture meaningfully outside of their own nooks and crannies of the country to meet and understand the people and communities shaped by their judgments. When Rowe, however, wrote in his questionnaire that “Newfoundland and Labrador is the part of Canada that I will always know best, but all of Canada is my home,” he really meant it.
And he is an outdoorsman. Of course, he is. In the winter, he telemark-skis down the slopes of Newfoundland and then in the summer he circumnavigates it in his sailboat. Nothing, it seems, can quench his thirst to experience Canada extensively, and that goes for the land and the seas, too.
In a province known for the gift of the gab, Malcolm Rowe is temperamentally quiet. He is an active and careful listener who pipes up only when he can add something of value or pose a penetrating but respectful question — which is exactly what Supreme Court justices do for a living. It’s also what he has been doing for a decade and a half on the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal, and how he has mentored some 200 young Canadians through Action Canada.
Like many judges, Malcolm Rowe keeps a low profile. But give him a chance, he will let loose. Not having conducted a scientific survey, I reckon that few judges can dance harder into the wee hours of the night than Mr. Justice Rowe.
A bilingual, empathetic, passionate judge, the first ever from Newfoundland and Labrador, who is as at home in big cities as he is above the Arctic Circle, whose love for the land is eclipsed only by his love for its people, and who can cut a rug, too – that is precisely the kind of judge Canada needs on its Supreme Court.
Benjamin Shinewald is a lawyer and was an Action Canada Fellow in 2006/07.