National Post

Saturday, February 27, 1999

Supreme Court's great dissenter

Janice Tibbetts
Southam News


Supreme Court / Supreme Court of Canada justices, from left to right, Front row: Peter Cory, Claire L'Heureux-Dube, Chief Justice Antonio Lamer, Charles Gonthier, and Beverly McLachlin. Back row: Justice Frank Iacobucci, Jack Major, Michel Bastarache, and Ian Binnie.
In legal circles, anyone who knows Supreme Court Justice Claire L'Heureux-Dube is aware that she has suffered enduring grief.

More than 20 years ago, while the Supreme Court judge was still a practising lawyer in Quebec, her professor husband committed suicide.

Tragedy struck again in 1994, when her only son, Pierre, whose life had been plagued by depression, died suddenly at the age of 30 of a mysterious virus.

His death occurred two years after he had been convicted of brandishing a gun in his mother's apartment, claiming there was a conspiracy against him.

"She's had a lot of trials," said Kathleen Mahoney, a law professor at University of Calgary and a personal friend of Judge L'Heureux-Dube.

"But she's never seen herself as a victim."

Indeed, the Quebec-born judge, the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, has passed out her share of punches. It's nothing new for Judge L'Heureux-Dube, known as the great dissenter, to stand apart from the majority of judges because she has something else to say.

She's widely considered the loner on the high court and is the one most likely to be found on the losing side of a decision. A recent study by Peter McCormick, a University of Lethbridge political scientist and longtime Supreme Court watcher, described her as "isolated at one edge of the court."

Prof. McCormick went on to speculate that perhaps the women who have survived in a male-dominated profession are the ones who "have learned to dig their own foxhole and stand everybody off."

Judge L'Heureux-Dube considers herself a champion of equal rights and tends to come down on the side of women's rights more often than the other woman on the bench, Justice Beverley McLachlin.

Judge L'Heureux-Dube, a known workaholic, has a passionate, inquisitive style and is one of the judges most likely to take on lawyers as they argue their cases.

Her opinions have earned her the reputation of being the court's feminist. One of her best-known commentaries, before her stunning rebuke this week, was her dissenting opinion in 1992 when the court struck down the rape shield law that prevented sexual assault complainants from being questioned about their previous sexual history.

Her friends include a roster of feminists, both academic and on the bench, including Rosalie Abella, an Ontario Court of Appeal judge who could be in line for a Supreme Court appointment, and Chief Justice Catherine Fraser, of the Alberta Court of Appeal, who is Justice John McClung's boss and, along with Judge L'Heureux-Dube, strongly disagreed with his ruling that acquitted an Edmonton man of sexual assault.

"I don't think it's appropriate for any judge to talk about (Judge McClung's comments)," said Judge Abella, who co-wrote a family law book with Judge L'Heureux-Dube.

At 71, Judge L'Heureux-Dube is expected to retire in the next few years from a job that has been the centre of her life since she was named to the bench by former prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1987.

At that time, her appointment won wide praise across the political spectrum because she was considered a respected jurist with no known political ties.

She was born in Quebec City but grew up in Rimouski on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.

She originally worked as a secretary at a plant that produced cod-liver oil, but later decided to go to law school, graduating in 1951.

She worked as a lawyer, practising family law, before she was appointed to Quebec's Superior Court in 1973.

She rose to the Court of Appeal in 1979, one year after the death of her husband, Arthur Dube, a professor of metallurgical engineering at Laval University.

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