Globe and Mail

The making of Beverley McLachlin

MARGARET WENTE
The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, November 9, 1999

Back in her university days, Beverley McLachlin got a job as a summer reporter on a newspaper in Alberta. She's far too discreet to say which one. Of course, she was assigned to the women's pages, where she cranked out zippy stories on salad queens and dairy princesses and hoped to get noticed by the crusty male city editor. One day, she went down to the Expo grounds and interviewed a stripper. "She told me all about how she'd got burned in the course of her tassel dance," recalls Judge McLachlin. "She showed me her scars. It was a pretty good story on women in the workplace, I thought."

The city editor did notice her. "What the hell are you doing to the women's pages?" he growled. And with that, she figured she'd better find something else to do for a living.

Judge McLachlin told this story to Peter Gzowski a while back, without a trace of rancour. It's the only story she's told publicly about her gender and her career.

In her early years in the law, she was frequently the only woman in the room. Such women were always held to a higher standard than men were. She always met the standard. She is a strong believer in women's rights, but she is an equality feminist, not a difference feminist. "I start from the premise that men and women share a great commonality of human experience," she says.

Canada's next chief justice does not believe that gender is especially relevant to the task ahead. But she does believe that who you are and where you come from contributes profoundly to your work.

Self-reliance, hard work and neighbourliness were the most important values to the farmers and ranchers of Pincher Creek, Alta., where she grew up. She says she still thinks of Pincher Creek every day. It is beautiful country, where the wind blows hard all the time. No one back then was rich. "There was no distinction between boys and girls," says her old friend, Carol Huddart, who sits on the B.C. Court of Appeal. "People decided what you were good at and then you were expected to be a contributing member of the family." Judge McLachlin was the oldest of five; her father was a small businessman, her mother a housewife. "Her mother was dedicated to other people, and her father was quite intellectual," says Judge Huddart. "She's a combination of them both."

Friends describe her as the same unpretentious farm girl she's always been -- a farm girl with one of the world's superior intellects. She would rather not be called Madam. Her first husband, Rory, was an environmental consultant who smoked his own salmon, made his own wine and cut his own firewood. "He put his career on the back burner and put mine first," she has said. They had one son, Angus, now in his 20s. "Rory did a lot of the child-rearing. Every time Angus had to go to emergency, it always seems it was Rory with him. It liberated me to do other things."

"Most of us in this world have extraordinary husbands," says Judge Huddart. "Any woman who has a difficult husband with an ego problem gets held back by it." When Rory died in 1988, of cancer of the mouth, Judge McLachlin was devastated. Their son was 12. She had been appointed chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court only three days before. She threw herself into her work. Three years later, she got married again, to a much older lawyer named Frank McArdle. He is a cheerful, semi-retired extrovert, who's completely supportive of her success.

Judge McLachlin, who's 56, will be the first chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada who can make a fine set of slipcovers. She is an effortless and efficient mistress of all the domestic arts, including gardening and cooking. She took piano lessons when she had time, and nurtures a passion for Bach. She learned French well enough to write a judgment in it. "She's the kind of person who believes in doing everything as well as she possibly can," says one friend. She even writes fiction when she has a chance.

"She defies a lot of stereotypes of women in the law," says Mary Ellen Boyd, another close friend who is a trial judge in Vancouver. "She's a very elegant, gracious woman. She has a tremendous female presence that men admire and women appreciate as well. She's achieved what she has without renouncing an ounce of her femininity."

Judge Huddart concurs. "I think it's important that women recognize she has never sacrificed her family for the sake of her job. There are always tradeoffs. But they are the kind of tradeoffs that can be accommodated within the context of a normal family life."

"There's a certain judicial mantle that can envelop you when you're on the bench," Judge McLachlin has said. She has resisted it. She has worked hard to stay rooted in the real world. She understands that to know and love the law is only the beginning. The test of true wisdom is to exercise your intellect with empathy and emotional imagination. By that measure, Beverley McLachlin is a very wise woman.


E-mail: mwente@globeandmail.ca

Copyright © 1999 Globe Information Services