Toronto Star

Sunday, August 22, 1999

`I always wanted to be a judge'

Passion for law burned within Lamer as child

By Edison Stewart
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA - Growing up on the rough streets of east-end Montreal, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Antonio Lamer would find himself in court one day. But as the accused, not the chief justice of Canada.

``In my block, everybody but two of us went to the penitentiary,'' he once recalled. ``The other guy's a dentist. I became a lawyer.''

And not just any lawyer.

With almost 30 years on the bench, 20 of them on the Supreme Court, nine of those as its 16th chief justice, the francophone Quebecer has been a pivotal player in the revolution triggered by the 1982 arrival of the Charter of Rights.

`In my block, everybody but two of us went to the penitentiary. The other guy's a dentist. I became a lawyer.'
- Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Lamer

Abortion. Gay rights. Euthanasia. Mandatory retirement. Aboriginal rights. The possible secession of Quebec. They are some of the most important issues of our time and the court has dealt with them all, and many more, right down to Sunday shopping.

And now the 66-year-old Lamer has decided to step down, as of Jan. 7.

The passion that drew him as a youngster to courtrooms as a spectator has, after more than 50 years, begun to fade, he said yesterday.

``Putting it another way, what was a very demanding but nevertheless fascinating period of my professional life is gradually becoming a job,'' he told the Canadian Bar Association in Edmonton.

``Having heard 1,317 cases on the Supreme Court, and written (judgments) in 345 of them, I have decided to hang up my robes.''

Lamer suffers circulatory problems in his legs, making it difficult for him to stand still for any length of time, but ``my health was not the issue here,'' he told The Star's William Walker.

He has made it clear for some time that he intended to retire at about age 66.

In typical humble fashion, Lamer tacked the announcement of his departure on to the end to his annual report to his fellow lawyers on judicial issues and the court's work.

Appointed to the court by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1980, the self-described ``libertarian'' has been driven by a strong belief in individual rights.

``People are the most important thing of all,`` he told one interviewer after his appointment as chief justice by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1990.

``The Charter gave the individual the tools to stand up to oppression from the collectivity. They are rights that cannot be taken away by the passing of a law.''

A former criminal lawyer, Lamer has decried what he called the mounting public thirst for more convictions whether the accused is properly defended or not.

``You must get up and fight and sell again this wonderful idea that everyone, including people like (Nazi leader Adolf) Eichmann or anybody else, has a right to be defended by a defence attorney . . . who is properly paid,'' he once advised defence lawyers.

``It's easy to be against the death penalty the night of a hanging,'' he observed on another occasion. ``But it's more difficult to be against hanging the night of a murder.

``The acid test is not to be a libertarian when it is popular. It's to be a libertarian when it's unpopular.''

Lamer's court has certainly had its share of being unpopular. It used the Charter to nullify the abortion law, strike down Quebec's French-only sign law and send Ontario's court system into chaos by ruling that an accused must be brought to trial within eight months of being charged.

The court has been slammed by various critics as too interventionist, too weak on criminals.

And in last year's historic case on whether Quebec can legally secede unilaterally, the Quebec government initially portrayed the federally-appointed panel as basically a bunch of puppets that would do Ottawa's bidding.

But one way or another, Lamer has always had an answer for the critics.

In the Quebec case, it was a Solomon-like judgment which said that while unilateral secession would be illegal, the rest of the country would have a legal obligation to negotiate if Quebec voted by a clear majority on a clear question to secede.

It has not been easy. Faced with some of the thorniest social issues of the day, ``extremely difficult, explosive issues,'' Lamer has acknow- ledged that sometimes the only choice for the court is to cross its fingers and go for broke.

``There are issues where we just do our damned best and hope to God we did the right thing,'' he once said.

The son of a lawyer of the same name, Lamer very easily could have ended up doing something else.

Many of his friends ended up in jail - some turned into holdup men, one committed murder and the girl across the street became a prostitute - and his father tried to steer him into engineering or almost anything else.

Or, he could have ended up in politics. As a student at the University of Montreal he was president of the Quebec young Liberals, and the federal Liberals later tried to recruit him to run.

But Lamer says he was only interested in politics to defeat the corrupt Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis, and when that was done he dropped out.

The passion for the law burned within Lamer from the age of 12 or 13. The courthouse was like a magnet, drawing him to watch murder trials for hours.

``When I look back on it, I think I always wanted to be a judge,'' he recalled fondly in 1991.

His father failed to derail him, but he did manage to send him to a boarding school, taking him off the streets that had caused so much trouble for his friends, and teaching him lessons that mark his life to this day.

``I asked my father many years later, `Why did you send me to that college?' '' Lamer recalled in 1991.

``He said, `Because the place is full of farmers' sons.' He didn't want me to have an elitist perspective. He had great respect for those people.''

Adding to that unpretentious nature was Lamer's early exposure to Canada's two founding cultures. Even though his first name sounds Italian, Lamer is three parts French and one part Irish.

Lamer graduated from the University of Montreal law school and was called to the bar in 1957, specializing in criminal law.

In one highly publicized case in 1968, he successfully defended separatist leader Pierre Bourgault on a charge of inciting a riot at a St. Jean Baptiste Day parade attended by Trudeau.

In 1971, he was one of the ``young tigers'' named to the new Law Reform Commission of Canada. He moved to the Quebec Court of Appeal in 1978 and two years later to the Supreme Court of Canada.

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