Toronto Star

Friday, June 11, 1999

Supreme Court Appointment

`She's as fine a person as she is a jurist'

Arbour takes on job of a lifetime

War crimes prosecutor leaves grim duties for Canada's top court

By William Walker
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau Chief

OTTAWA - Louise Arbour was deadly serious about her role as chief war crimes prosecutor for the United Nations, but she was also deeply frustrated.

Then the job of a lifetime beckoned and she took it.

After being barred entry into Kosovo last month by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whom she subsequently indicted for war crimes, the time was right for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to come calling.

Arbour, 52, has a tremendous capacity for work, yet she described the workload on the war crimes tribunal - based in The Hague - as ``horrendous.'' It is also known behind the scenes that she was frustrated by a lack of resources.

That won't be the case with her seat on the Supreme Court of Canada, a position many insiders say the brilliant legal mind was destined for.

``She has a real understanding of criminal law and process,'' Toronto lawyer Brian Greenspan said of Arbour when she received her United Nations appointment in 1996.

``One of the surprises about Louise is that, without her having been a practitioner, she understands the community, the nature of crime, its dynamics.

``She understands everyone from inmates to guards to cops to lawyers.''

Nor will there be an issue about job security. Arbour is leaving the U.N. tribunal with less than a year left on her mandate, but the Supreme Court appointment is a permanent one.

Besides, Arbour had indicated she would not seek a second term as a war crimes prosecutor.

``I think one term should be enough to make a difference. There shouldn't be the appearance of turning it into a career,'' she said last month.

Now she has a new career, one coveted by benchers and senior lawyers across the country.

Toronto lawyer Steven Skurka, who in 1996 predicted that Arbour will one day ``be chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada,'' yesterday hailed the appointment of his former law professor as ``a truly outstanding move.

``She'll be a first-rate jurist,'' said the Toronto lawyer, who recently represented convicted child molester John Paul Roby in a lengthy trial.

``The Supreme Court is desperately in need of someone with her background in criminal law and litigation.''

``She's as fine a person as she is a jurist,'' Skurka added. ``She's extremely ebullient, with a sense of fairness and compassion.

``She is a wonderful person, an outstanding talent - the whole package is there.''

The Montreal-born Arbour went to an all-girls convent school before attending the University of Montreal's law school, where she graduated in 1971.

She then clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Louis-Philipe Pigeon and She began teaching law at Osgoode Hall in 1974, was appointed to the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1987 and promoted to the Ontario Court of Appeal three years later. She also conducted the highly praised royal commission into the prison for women at Kingston.

Along the way, she had two sons and a daughter, and for some three decades made a life with Larry Taman, who she met while both were law clerks at the Supreme Court.

Friends say Arbour and Taman, who served for a time as Ontario's deputy attorney-general, never found time to marry.

During their many years in Toronto, the couple - who have since separated - spent weekdays at their Rosedale home and weekends in a country residence several hours north of Toronto.

Greenspan, who studied law with Taman and who met Arbour more than 20 years ago, once described her as having ``a wonderful sense of humour.

``She's engaging, very caring, decent,'' he said at the time. ``She is a person who generates an enormous amount of enthusiasm.''

Insiders say Arbour has had a lock on the Supreme Court job for some time.

As well as being eminently qualified, French is her first language and the top court needed more women.

On the court of appeal, she showed herself to be a team player who sided with the majority in most rulings.

``She's extremely bright and by any measure qualifies to be on the Supreme Court, with sound beliefs on free speech and equality issues,'' said Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby.

But some legalists wonder how Arbour's experience on the war crimes tribunal may have changed her and how it will affect her while serving on the Supreme Court.

``I've talked to her and she has been deeply affected by the work (on the tribunal),'' Ruby said. ``She has a passion against the failure of (an international) justice system.''

That failure, witnessed by Arbour, involved what she called ``a mutual avoidance strategy'' among NATO member soldiers toward arresting war criminals from countries such as Yugoslavia, so as not to upset the military status quo.

Trying to prosecute after mass atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo, Arbour has viewed sickening autopsy photos of victims and has logged thousands of kilometres to view first-hand many of the horrors.

She recently told reporters from Macedonia that her frustration stemmed from working in an environment where ``the irrational and self-serving are the order of the day.''

Said Ruby: ``It's a frustrating job.

``It was a difficult job and it became more difficult after she got it. I'm sure it will affect her. I'm sure her life has been radically changed by this experience.''

Many in the international community had feared that Arbour would leave her post early, saying it would be a major blow to the tribunal.

But in Canada, many legal experts said it would be unfair to ask her to throw away a 20-year career opportunity to serve out the final year.

With files from Nicolaas van Rijn

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