National Post

Page URL:

Thursday, November 04, 1999

Woman of firsts a pragmatist with no-nonsense style
Oldest of five children: Methodical and prolific worker appears to have been destined for job
Janice Tibbetts
Southam News

Eden Robbins
Beverley McLachlin, 56, will become the first woman to lead the Supreme Court of Canada in January, when Chief Justice Antonio Lamer resigns.

OTTAWA - There's an old joke that Beverley McLachlin has quietly breezed through the legal system faster than many cases.

The 56-year-old judge completed her rise to the top yesterday when she was named the first female chief justice of Canada, arguably the country's most powerful woman.

She has likely become used to seeing herself described in terms of firsts.

Before being named to lead the Supreme Court of Canada, she was the first woman to serve on a provincial appeal court. Ten years ago, she became the first woman to be appointed chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court.

Although it should have been a high point in her fast-track career, friends say she looked back on the period in British Columbia as a difficult time in her life. Her husband of 21 years, Rory McLachlin, died of throat cancer and she became a widowed, working mother of Angus, 12.

"I went right on with my life and worked very hard after his death. For me [work] was an antidote, I suppose, to the pain," she said in a 1995 interview with Saturday Night magazine, in which she was dubbed Canada's "most important woman."

Members of the legal community speculate that this period helped shape her as a tough, pragmatic judge who is known for her no-nonsense approach to both work and life.

"She's really the ideal person for this job," said Jim Taylor, a Vancouver lawyer and friend of Judge McLachlin's who co-wrote two books with her on the B.C. legal system.

"I don't know if Bev would want me to say this, but she's old enough to be wise, young enough to be energetic and she's really in the prime of her life. She has a very sophisticated mind, she's a very bright lady, but, at the same time, she's very practical in a lot of ways and very loyal to her friends."

In fact, friends are effusive when asked about Judge McLachlin's warmth and sense of humour.

"She's fantastic. She's very down to earth and I think anyone who knows her would say that," says Karen Brooks, an Ottawa lawyer who clerked for Judge McLachlin five years ago and considers her a mentor.

"She's very clear thinking and very open-minded and she has a good sense of what is right and what is wrong. I found her quite inspiring."

Judge McLachlin is considered a methodical and prolific worker who has been touted as a future chief justice ever since she was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1989.

Like many of her colleagues on the Supreme Court, she has started her days as early as 5 a.m. and worked late at night and weekends.

She lives in the upscale Ottawa neighbourhood of Rockcliffe Park, is an avid cross-country skier and a frequent attendee of legal conferences. She is married to Frank McArdle, an Ottawa lawyer.

A self-described farm girl, Judge McLachlin, the oldest of five children, was born in Pincher Creek, Alta., a town of about 3,500 in the Rocky Mountain foothills, on Sept. 7, 1943. She shares a birthday with her colleague and friend, Justice Claire L'Heureux-Dube, also of the Supreme Court.

The similarities between the two women end there. It has been said that while Judge L'Heureux-Dube rules with her ear, Judge McLachlin rules with the head, handing down concise judgments that have won wide praise.


(Each link opens a new window)

  • The Supreme Court of Canada

    Canada's top court on the Web.

  • Jurist Canada

    The leading judicial website.

  • Supreme Court decisions

    Link to the decisions once they're handed down.

  • Copyright Southam Inc.