National Post

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Friday, June 11, 1999

This trip to Supreme Court will be to take a seat
Arbour's path has gone from Montreal college to war zones

Luiza Chwialkowska
National Post

In 1971, fresh out of law school, Louise Arbour arrived at the grey steps of the Supreme Court of Canada for the first time -- degree from the Universite de Montreal in hand, and hardly a word of English in her possession.

The daughter of a Montreal boutique owner, she had gone to Ottawa to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Louis-Phillippe Pigeon.

On Sept. 15, almost three decades later, she will return a fluently bilingual and respected jurist, to take her own seat at the nation's highest court.

Colleagues describe Judge Arbour, who will cut short her tenure as the aggressive lead prosecutor on the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal, as a woman of rare intelligence, disarming charm and an open mind.

She has also been called "a bitch" on American television by a Serbian man she accused of war crimes, and has been denounced as "no friend to women" by Canadian feminists after ruling that the history of rape victims should be exposed at trial.

"She is an independent person who does what she thinks is right," said Alan Borovoy, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. "Louise has shown a lot of courage."

In February, 1996, while a judge on the Court of Appeal for Ontario, Judge Arbour was appointed chief prosecutor of the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal. She was soon sifting through stories of rape, torture, and genocide, visiting mass graves in Bosnia, and viewing piles of Rwandan dead.

"The first thing that changed in me is that I became less patient," she said in a recent issue of Elm Street magazine. "I needed to see things done much more quickly."

After a shakeup at a war crimes tribunal that had become mired in UN bureaucracy and allegations of corruption, Judge Arbour began to make arrests in Rwanda. This year, she has indicted 84 people for war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia. She recently caused an uproar saying that NATO should stand trial for air strikes that have killed civilians in Yugoslavia. In January, she was physically prevented from entering Kosovo by Yugoslav border guards.

Her work in war zones has taken her a long way from the Catholic all-girls college in Montreal where she earned her bachelor's degree in 1967. But her francophone background helped her handle the UN job in French-speaking Africa.

Before becoming a judge, Judge Arbour, now 52, taught at Osgoode Hall Law School, at York University in Toronto. She soon became popular among her students, who considered her to be warm and approachable. She was known to prepare each class individually, not relying on the same notes from year to year.

Former colleagues say she will make an impact on the Supreme Court.

"She was always very persuasive in discussions. She really listens, and as a result, addresses what is of concern to people," said Mr. Borovoy, who worked with Judge Arbour while she was a lawyer for the Civil Liberties Association. "I remember telling her, 'Louise, I see you advocate with your ears.' "

The Supreme Court has already played a fateful role in Judge Arbour's life: It is there that she met her common-law spouse, law student Larry Taman, who was clerking for Bora Laskin, then chief justice. The two have recently separated.

When Judge Arbour declared in a 1992 insurance case that laws should not discriminate against common-law couples as compared to married couples, some observers speculated that her own domestic arrangement reflected personal beliefs against traditional marriage. But friends of the couple disagree.

"I don't think it was a principled decision not to marry. It just never was an issue," says one friend.

At the time of their meeting, Mr. Taman was separated but not divorced from a former wife. By the time he was divorced and able to remarry, the couple was firmly together and joked to friends that they had "forgotten they were not married."

Judge Arbour, who is described as "devoted" to her family, saw her own parents divorce in the 1950s.

The couple had three children: Emilie and Patrick, now university students, and Catherine, a high school student who has been living with Judge Arbour in The Hague.

Judge Arbour enjoys travel, has taught in England, and lived for a year in Singapore. She is described as well-read and often immersed in the latest literary novel.

Copyright Southam Inc.