First World War law students honoured in Alberta

The 100th anniversary of First World War to be marked with a very different bar call in Alberta.

First World War law students honoured in Alberta
Calgary lawyer George Stewart will stand in when his great uncle Private Skene is called to the bar.

The 100th anniversary of the First World War is to be marked with a very different bar call in Alberta.

Thirty-seven Alberta law students will be called to the bar in a special ceremony at the Calgary Courts Centre Nov. 9, just days before Remembrance Day. But none of the students will attend. They can’t.

The law students from around the province all died in the First World War before they could complete their legal studies. In the fall, the benchers of the Law Society of Alberta voted unanimously to admit the law students posthumously.

“Their bravery and sacrifice allow today’s lawyers to continue to stand for justice,” says Don Cranston, president of the Law Society of Alberta.

One of those men was 24-year-old University of Alberta law student Private Harold Alexander Skene. He came from a family with a rich and continuing legal tradition. Among them was his brother, Captain Stanley Donald Skene, who was already a Calgary lawyer before joining the army.

In letter written from the front to their mother in November 1916, Captain Skene described his younger brother’s death. He said a Canadian attack “halfway to their objective” was held up by what he described as a “a truck full of Germans.” His brother trained a Lewis (machine) gun on the enemy “when a sniper from over on the left got him right thru (sic) the head killing him instantly. That is the only consolation. He took a soldiers’ chance and lost. But there was no suffering.”

The letter was found among his mother’s belongings when she died.

There are similar poignant stories about the deaths of the other 36 would-be lawyers to be honoured on Nov 9., just days before the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

Calgary lawyer George Stewart will stand in when his great uncle Private Skene is called to the bar.

“I am honoured on behalf of the family to represent him in this fashion,” says Stewart. 

Among the members of the Skene family in attendance will be Judge Catherine Skene, Private Skene’s great aunt, who sits in the provincial Court of Alberta.

The idea of honouring Canadian law students killed in the First World War owes a lot to Toronto lawyer Patrick Shea, a partner at Gowling WLG. He has undertaken the task of tracing Canadian articling students killed in the First World War. To date he has tracked down about 550 students.

In 2014, Shea organized a special call at Osgoode Hall in Toronto for Ontario law students killed in the First World War. Last year, he arranged a similar call for Ontario law students killed in the Second World War.

In 2016, the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador organized a similar ceremony to honour its First World War casualties.

Why has Shea gone to such lengths to trace these names?

“It’s all about making sure these individuals are recognized. After all, they sacrificed everything.”

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