National Post

May 2, 2002

Retiring judge proud to have pushed reforms

Claire L'Heureux-Dube
Cristin Schmitz
Southam News
National Post


Dave Chan, Ottawa Citizen
Claire L'Heureux-Dubé presided over 1,265 Supreme Court cases.

OTTAWA - After 15 years that saw her emerge as one of the most colourful and controversial judges in the land, Madam Justice Claire L'Heureux-Dubé says she is leaving the Supreme Court of Canada with a clear conscience and few regrets.

The court's second female judge, who in September reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75, was to personally deliver her resignation late yesterday to Martin Cauchon, the Minister of Justice. Her official retirement date is July 1, but she has six months to complete her judgments.

She will return to live in her native Quebec City where, among other things, she will spend more time with her beloved four-year-old grandson, Simon.

"I am extremely serene," Judge L'Heureux-Dubé said yesterday in an exclusive interview to mark her retirement. "I feel I have done what I thought was right, so I can sleep peacefully like I have done all of my life."

Judge L'Heureux-Dubé was sworn in to the Supreme Court on May 4, 1987, after serving for eight years as the first female judge on the Quebec Court of Appeal.

"I am very, very grateful for the country to have permitted me to be here and do my best in terms of rendering justice, because I guess there is no better calling in the world," she said.

The Supreme Court's most outspoken advocate for equal rights for women, gays and lesbians, minorities and other groups, Judge L'Heureux-Dubé put in many 18-hour days in her chambers, occasionally dialling out for pizza and sleeping on a portable cot.

From 1987 to 2001, she presided over 1,265 cases and wrote 252 opinions -- almost 40% of them in dissent, according to new statistics released by her office.

Judge L'Heureux-Dubé described the intellectual challenges of the Supreme Court as a great joy, but acknowledged she found life there "a hard road."

Her toughest and most heart-wrenching case was that of Sue Rodriguez, the terminally ill B.C. woman who asked the court for the right to die on her own terms. In her dissent, Judge L'Heureux-Dubé sided with Ms. Rodriguez and would have struck down the law against assisted suicide. Today, however, she concedes she is "glad, in a way," that the court upheld the law, leaving the life-and-death decision with Parliament.

"I never regretted my dissent ... but the question always is: 'How do you assess the consent of the person [to die]?' That was a big worry."

During a career that spanned a half-century, Judge L'Heureux-Dubé was unwavering in her commitment to deeply felt notions of equality and justice. But while her efforts to eradicate sexism, ageism and other perceived biases from the law drew praise from human-rights activists, it earned her the condemnation of those who argue the Supreme Court should not be used as an engine of social reform.

"Gandhi said when you want to be progressive, when you want to promote ideas -- and equality is one of those ideas -- 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.'

"For me, it's very simple: Women are entitled to justice and respect like everybody else."

Judge L'Heureux-Dubé also spoke publicly for the first time about one of the most painful episodes in her career. It began in 1999, when, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court overturned a controversial ruling in the Ewanchuk sexual-assault case.

In that ruling, Mr. Justice John McClung of the Alberta Court of Appeal acquitted an Edmonton man of sexual assault, noting the 17-year-old complainant was not wearing "a bonnet and crinolines" and that the accused's conduct was "far less criminal than hormonal."

In a separate concurring opinion, Judge L'Heureux-Dubé dissected what she called archaic myths and stereotypes in Judge McClung's ruling and took exception to his remarks.

Judge McClung in turn wrote a letter to the National Post accusing the judge of expressing personal convictions through her judgments that could be contributing to the rise of male suicides in Quebec. He later said he was unaware Judge L'Heureux-Dubé's husband had committed suicide in 1978.

"It's invasion of privacy, it's innuendoes that I am responsible for my husband's death," Judge L'Heureux-Dubé said yesterday, recalling her distress. "I was totally hurt by this type of innuendo.

"It just shows that [women] are still targeted in so many ways as men have not [been]," she said. "If a man had written my concurring opinion in Ewanchuk, I would bet my right hand that the incident that followed would never have happened. I am convinced of that."

She said she felt bound as a judge to express disapproval of Judge McClung's comments -- which were later condemned by the judicial council -- because "the law says you cannot use myths and prejudices in a judgment."

Despite these struggles and those of other female jurists, Judge L'Heureux-Dubé noted women have come a long way since she struggled to find a job as a lawyer in 1952.

"I never thought I would become a judge ... now that it is done, I'm happy about that. It's the best profession in the world, and I'm absolutely comfortable with the past, and hopeful for the future."

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