Prime ministers and legal community celebrate McLachlin at retirement gala

It was a fête befitting the first female justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and the longest serving in the country’s history.

Prime ministers and legal community celebrate McLachlin at retirement gala
Justice Beverley McLachlin with former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who appointed her chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in 2000.

It was a fête befitting the first female justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and the longest serving in the country’s history.

Nearly 900 well-wishers — including the prime minister of Canada, two former prime ministers and two former governor generals — came from across the country to pay tribute last night to retiring Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who officially retires today. The gala farewell dinner was held at the Shaw Centre in downtown Ottawa.

In giving the toast to the honoree, past governor general David Johnston described civilization as being like a garden close to a jungle. Two themes in her relationship to the court had been the entrenchment of human rights through the Constitution in 1982 and having “carved out a whole body of jurisprudence” in the area of indigenous law. Johnston called this last “the most distinctive area of jurisprudence we’ve seen in a long time, and Beverley McLachlin has been a leader in that.

“The legacy she has left will ensure that the garden will grow and flourish for some time to come,” said Johnston. “As you salute Beverley and toast the Queen, I don’t think the Queen would disagree that if anyone who has served the public good, as her majesty has done, it is Beverley McLachlin.”

In a video tribute to her, former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell called Chief Justice McLachlin one of the most productive members of the court, who has written leading opinions in every area of the law. “We have loved you for a long time, and we will never forget you,” said Cromwell, quoting lyrics from a French song.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described McLachlin as “a trailblazer and a truly gracious person” — a sentiment echoed by others last night.

“She has shone a spotlight on access to justice,” Trudeau said. For the injured person, the middle-class family thinking of mortgaging their home to seek access to justice and more, the chief justice understood these challenges and led the high court in improving access to the justice system, he said.

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, who elevated McLachlin to the Supreme Court chief justice position in 2000, told McLachlin: "You have honoured the country, you have honoured the profession," and he noted her "class, beauty and intelligence."

Praising the chief justice for helping to establish “the very best bench in the world,” former prime minister Brian Mulroney — who appointed McLachlin to the Supreme Court in 1989 — told attendees it would be “said of McLachlin in history that she brought honour to her country, pride to her family and achievement to her life. No one can ask for more."

Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson spoke of her personal friendship with McLachlin, who was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court just three months after Clarkson had been named to her post, and the two became friends.

"She has made all women feel that they could aspire to be like her," Clarkson said of McLachlin, noting her beginnings in Pincher Creek, Alta. and the personal challenges she had faced, widowed at a young age and raising a young son on her own — and the attempt in their era to pigeonhole women into pink-collar jobs (to which even then both she and McLachlin had been told they were unsuited).

“The struggle for opportunity is not over, but she has done so much” to overcome that, said Clarkson. “Beverley McLachlin is a beacon.”

Finally, she said, McLachlin “has shown us what it means to understand each other.”

In her own remarks, McLachlin called Canada “a country that respects the rule of law, and of openness, in which a young woman of no particular note could become a lawyer and a judge and a chief justice.” She thanked her staff, fellow justices and family members for their support.

"My country and my court [the Supreme Court] will carry on . . . marking new achievements. I take my leave confident that the justice system is strong and vibrant," she said and in the capable hands of newly appointed Chief Justice Richard Wagner. 

McLachlin also reiterated that her time on the Supreme Court of Canada bench over nearly three decades had been "the centrepiece" of her life.

"Au revoir, merci, it’s been a great time,” she told the hundreds of gathered well-wishers. “Thank you very much.”

Gala attendee Janet Fuhrer, a partner with law firm Ridout & Maybee LLP in Ottawa, met McLachlin during Fuhrer’s tenure as president of the Canadian Bar Association in 2015-2016. “She is gracious, inclusive, inspirational,” said Fuhrer. “She’s been a tremendous role model to women in the profession.”

One of McLachlin’s former law clerks (in 2012-2013), Emily MacKinnon, now at McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto, said: “She was an inspirational woman to work for . . . one of the most efficient people I’ve ever seen.”

McLachlin was also known for her love of music, and there was a piano in the courthouse at which MacKinnon, a former opera singer, occasionally sang with McLachlin's husband, Frank McArdle ("a very talented tenor," she noted).

The retiring Chief Justice of Canada had “a remarkable human touch” as well as an incisive legal mind, MacKinnon said.

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