Maurice “The Rocket” Richard
August 4, 1921-May 27, 2000
Maurice “The Rocket” Richard always insisted that he was just a hockey player. No matter how heartfelt and accurate, those denials didn’t stop fans, politicians, team owners, and opportunists from appropriating his name and power for their personal, political, philosophical, and commercial goals. Even after he died of abdominal cancer on May 27, 2000, his state funeral – extremely rare for an athlete – threatened to become hijacked by politics. Should the coffin be draped with the fleur-de-lys flag, symbolizing the nationalist aspirations of Quebec, as Premier Lucien Bouchard wanted? Or should it be covered with the maple leaf of Canada, as Prime Minister Jean Chretien desired in that tempestuous era of national unity debates? Wisely, Richard’s family chose the apolitical route that the hockey legend himself had always tried to skate: they ordered a blanket of yellow roses, insisting that the final public ceremony be about the man, not other people’s expectations or ambitions.
His career statistics are still staggering: He was the first player to score fifty goals in a fifty-game season and to amass a career total of five hundred goals, achieving 544 markers in regular play and 82 in the playoffs in his eighteen years skating with the Canadiens. He helped win the Stanley Cup eight times for Montreal, was captain for four winning years in a row between 1957 and 1960, and played in every annual nhl All-Star game from 1947 to 1959.
He was also the only hockey player to single-handedly spark a riot in the streets of Montreal, on March 17, 1955 – St. Patrick’s Day – after league president Clarence Campbell suspended him for the rest of the season after a violent altercation with a linesman four days earlier in Boston.
Why was it that Richard became more than just a hockey player in the hearts and imaginations of Canadians? Sure, Howie Morenz was already a star before Richard laced up his skates for les Canadiens in 1942, but Morenz was an anglophone from Ontario. The Rocket was the first French-Canadian hockey legend. He emerged as a jet-propelled scoring ace in the 1940s and early 1950s, when radio controlled the airwaves. An entire generation of Quebecois boys, including future teammates Jean Beliveau and Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, grew up listening to the play-by-play, visualizing the Rocket tearing up the ice (and any defencemen) in his zigzag path as he roared from the blue line, eyes blazing, to slap a puck into the opposing team’s net.
One of those kids was Roch Carrier, the distinguished playwright and short-story writer ( La guerre, yes sir! and Floralie, où es-tu? among other titles), arts administrator, and author of the classic children’s book TheHockey Sweater . Born in May 1937, Carrier turned eight the year that Richard scored fifty goals in fifty games. In The Hockey Sweater he describes his adulation for Richard and his chagrin when his mother ordered him a new sweater from the Eaton’s catalogue and the retailer sent a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater by mistake. “We all combed our hair like Maurice Richard . . .
We laced our skates like Maurice Richard, we taped our sticks like Maurice Richard. . . . On the ice . . . we were ten players all wearing the uniform of the Montreal Canadiens . . . [and we] all wore the famous number 9 on our backs.”
Although Richard is often forced into the heroic mould of a hero of the Quiet Revolution, he is a reluctant and imperfect fit. He did grow up in Quebec at a time when anglophone commercial and cultural dominance was pronounced and he played in an era when the ultra-nationalist Maurice Duplessis was premier of the province, but Richard was always his own man.
Moreover, he retired from hockey a year after Duplessis died in September 1959, just as the not-so-Quiet Revolution was beginning.
Richard never made a political speech other than to complain, quite rightly, that in his day the owners treated the players, who drew in the fans and filled their coffers, more like serfs than heroes. But that was a common grievance throughout hockey and not limited to francophone players.
Introverted and shy, Richard remained apart – not aloof, but apart – from the camaraderie in the locker room and the kibitzing on the hockey award banquet circuit. Richard led by example, not words, as Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante observed decades after the legendary player had hung up his skates. “The Rocket was a very quiet man and on the road trips, he would watch us play cards and laugh at the jokes.” More important, “He always took the blame himself for a loss, never faulting anyone else. If a player wasn’t working hard enough or playing smart, one glare from the Rocket usually corrected the problem.”
That silence, that distance, left plenty of space for sportswriters and pundits to speculate about the extraordinary surge of emotion this smoulderingeyed, taciturn lumberjack on skates could summon from the stoniest heart.
There isn’t a single answer, but the best explanation is probably that fans and foes alike recognized in Richard a simple man driven by love – for the game, his family, and his country – all of those basic values that need no fancy filigree to shine brighter than precious metals.
Joseph Henri Maurice Richard, the eldest of eight children of Onesime and Alice Richard (nee Laramee), was born on August 4, 1921, in Montreal.
His parents, who were both from the Gaspe region, had moved separately to the city, seeking work during the First World War. They met, courted, married, and found a small house to rent in the east end, near Lafontaine Park. By the time Maurice was four, his father, a woodworker for the Canadian Pacific Railway at their Angus Yards, had saved up enough money to build a small house in the Bordeaux district, near rue Jean-Talon in the northeast part of the city. That’s where Maurice learned to play hockey on a backyard rink flooded by his father.
Organized hockey teams began when he entered the school system. He played peewee, bantam, and midget while a student at Saint-Francois-de-Laval elementary school. After Grade 9 he went to the Montreal Technical School and played for its team as well as the community one in his neighbourhood.
As a teenager he added boxing and baseball to his sporting repertoire while continuing to play as many as two games of hockey during the week and four on weekends – adopting aliases such as “Maurice Rochon” so he could be on more than one roster.
He even met his future wife, Lucille, through hockey: she was the younger sister of Georges Norchet, his hockey coach at the Paquette Club, in the Parc Lafontaine Juvenile League. Norchet often invited team members back to his parents’ house after games. Unlike his more outgoing teammates, Richard would stand quietly off to the side, sipping a soft drink, when the rugs were rolled back and the gramophone wound up. Lucille, then only thirteen, was a petite and pretty redhead with a ready smile and easy social skills. “I took it upon myself to teach Maurice to dance and to act as his fashion consultant too,” she reminisced later. Much to her parents’ shock, the couple became engaged when she was seventeen. By then Richard had quit school and was working with his father as a machinist as well as earning some money as a player for the Canadiens’ senior farm team in the Quebec league.
They married on September 21, 1942. The Richards had reared seven children and had been married for more than half a century when Lucille died of cancer in July 1994. Richard was so devoted to his wife that he refused to leave her side to accept a symbolic appointment to the Privy Council. The Queen herself was to convey the honour at Rideau Hall on Canada Day, 1992, in commemoration of the 125th anniversary of Confederation. Adding the designation L’honorable to his name paled next to comforting his ailing wife. The pmo offered to send a nurse to the Richard home, but the Rocket declined.
Finally, Richard agreed to accept the honour in a special ceremony organized in his hometown.
As a player, Richard was fast and relentless. He got his nickname “Rocket” in 1942 from another player. Left-winger Ray Getliffe was sitting on the bench in the Forum watching Elmer Lach feed “a lovely pass” to Richard. “I leaned over [to one of the other players] and said, ‘Wow, Richard took off like a rocket.’” The comment was overheard by Montreal Star sports writer Dink Carroll, who immortalized it in print.
In his short biography Maurice Richard, Charles Foran describes Richard as having the upper body of a logger, complete with barrel chest, broad shoulders, tree-trunk arms, thick hands, and permanently swollen knuckles. “He does not skate over the ice so much as impose himself upon it with each pressuring stride. His strokes are economical rather than elegant, commanded by force more than grace,” Foran writes, having watched Richard’s solitary skate in a 1975 cbc documentary. “Shoulders square and elbows at 90 degrees, chin up and gaze ahead . . . he manoeuvres the puck side to side on the blade of his stick with the ease of someone stirring milk into coffee.”
Even more often than documenting Richard’s glide, journalists and opposing players invariably commented upon Richard’s gaze, especially the ferocious stare in his “anthracite eyes” as he barrelled towards the opposing team’s goal. Over the years several opposing players described the effect.
“When he came flying toward you with the puck on his stick, his eyes were all lit up, flashing and gleaming like a pinball machine. It was terrifying,” said Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall.
In his memoir, Tales of an Athletic Supporter , Trent Frayne described Richard as the “most spectacular goal scorer who ever played hockey.”
Nobody “electrified onlookers the way the Rocket did, dashing from the blue line in. And nobody I’ve seen since had his hypnotic flair, either. When he was battling for the puck near the net, driving for it with guys clutching at him, you could actually see a glitter in his coal-black eyes, the look wild horses get.”
Roch Carrier used the same animal image. “He’s half wild horse, half well-disciplined soldier . . . with a face as rough as a stone in a Gaspe field and the piercing eyes of someone who has the gift of seeing things invisible to others,”
he wrote in Our Life with the Rocket: The Maurice Richard Story .
Richard’s eyes even became part of the homily delivered by the archbishop of Montreal, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, at Richard’s funeral at Notre– Dame Basilica on May 31, 2000. “What a look! Such strength, such intensity in those eyes. Poets have said that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. All of Maurice was in his eyes. We will not forget that look,” the cardinal promised.
And so it has become.
But, for all his power and spell-casting, Richard was injury prone. Even before he showed up at training camp for the Canadiens in 1942, the year he married Lucille, he had suffered a broken ankle and a broken wrist. That season he fractured his leg in December, after only sixteen games. Canadiens general manager Tommy Gorman tried to trade him to the New York Rangers, but the American team scoffed at the deal.
Despite the conscription crisis at the outbreak of the Second World War and the nationalist Quebecois opposition to fighting for the British Crown, Richard wanted to enlist in the army and go overseas to fight the Germans.
He tried twice to join the combat forces, beginning in 1939, but was refused as unfit because X-rays showed his injuries hadn’t healed properly. Finally, in 1944, he applied as a machinist but was rejected because he had neither a high school diploma nor a technical trade certificate, even though he had been working at the trade in a local factory since he was sixteen. Frustrated but determined, he enrolled at the Montreal Technical School, but by the time he had earned his certificate, the war was over.
Instead of serving the war effort overseas, he kept the home spirits stoked by playing hockey. After Richard’s wife, Lucille, gave birth to their first child on October 23, 1943, he went to Canadiens coach Dick Irvin and asked if he could switch his number from fifteen to nine to commemorate the lusty birth weight of his daughter, Huguette. For Richard, the number became a talisman symbolizing his love for his baby and his wife and his need to express that emotion, not in words but on the ice, as he skated, stick-handled, and scored goals. Hockey, plus whatever jobs he could get in the off-season, combined later with endorsements and commercials for a variety of products – from hair dye to fishing tackle – were essential in supporting a wife and seven children. Despite his fame and his prowess, Richard never made more than $25,000 a season playing hockey.
In 1944 the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, with Richard scoring thirtytwo goals in the regular season and twelve in the playoffs, including all five goals in a 5–1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the semifinals, a stellar achievement that culminated in Richard’s being awarded all three stars at the end of the game that night. The following season Irvin switched the lefthanded Richard to right wing, alongside Elmer Lach and Toe Blake in what came to be called the “Punch Line.” That was the year he put fifty goals in the net in as many games.
Richard rarely started a fight, but he didn’t back away from one either, often using his training as a boxer to give back more than he got. He had a notoriously short fuse and, once ignited, his temper exploded like a fuelinjected missile. Heckled by rival players, victimized by referees, Richard was drafted into a symbolic martyrdom by a francophone minority who felt persecuted in their home province – the way they felt he was abused on the ice – by the mercantile and political masters of the rest of Canada.
One cultural commentator, Benoit Melancon, author of The Rocket: ACultural History of Maurice Richard , has actually gone so far as to compare a colour photograph of Richard in the April 1955 issue of Sport magazine with a seventeenth-century painting of Saint Sebastian, the early Christian martyr, by the Baroque painter Luca Giordano: “both bodies stand out against a black background; where one has an arrow in his side, the other holds fast to his stick.” But Melancon isn’t content with visual similarities between the painting of the martyr and the photograph of the hockey player. He contends that the photograph, which was hanging in the Montreal Forum before the March 1955 riot, gave marauders “the image of the martyr Richard was to become that very evening,” an overstretched juxtaposition that collapses under its own hyperbole.
In a much more restrained and powerful article in Saturday Night magazine in January 1955, novelist Hugh MacLennan wrote presciently about the “gentleness and ferocity” that co-existed in Richard and warned of the danger in provoking his rage: “Every great player must expect to be marked closely, but for ten years the Rocket has been systematically heckled by rival coaches who know intuitively that nobody can more easily be taken advantage of than a genius. Richard can stand any amount of roughness that comes naturally with the game, but after a night in which he has been cynically tripped, slashed, held, boarded, and verbally insulted by lesser men he is apt to go wild.
His rage is curiously impersonal – an explosion against frustration itself.”
Less than two months later Montreal itself exploded in what came to be known as the Richard Riot. Tensions had been percolating for years between Richard and the unilingual, authoritarian nhl president Clarence Campbell, a Rhodes Scholar, former nhl referee, and lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Army.
A year earlier, Richard, in a ghostwritten column in a Montreal weekly that he hadn’t even read, had called Campbell a dictator for the way he had “over-penalized” his brother Henri and Boom Boom Geoffrion for vicious behaviour in fights they had not initiated. Campbell went ballistic, with the result that Canadiens general manager Frank Selke persuaded Richard to offer an abject apology and to post a thousand-dollar bond. Campbell publicly released the details, which infuriated the French media. They accused the nhl of muzzling their hero, who by then had agreed to stop allowing his name to appear as a byline on somebody else’s prose.
An anglophone referee named McLean seemed to be blind when Richard was under attack and yet omniscient when the Rocket retaliated. Encountering the referee in a New York hotel lobby, Richard grabbed him and began swinging.
That earned him a $500 fine from Campbell. Then, in a losing game against the Bruins in Boston on March 13, 1955, Richard got into an altercation with opposing defenceman Hal Laycoe. Sticks were raised, and Laycoe opened a gash in Richard’s scalp. Trent Frayne, who was there, described Richard attacking the defenceman with his stick: “wielding it across Laycoe’s shoulders and neck as though taking an axe to a tree.” The benches emptied, and in the ensuing brawl Richard punched linesman Cliff Thompson, a retired defenceman for the Bruins, in the face – twice. Campbell ordered that Richard, the Canadiens’ leading scorer, be suspended for the rest of the season, including the playoffs.
The lengthy suspension outraged fans and killed Richard’s hopes of winning his first league scoring title. Everybody had an opinion on Campbell’s verdict, including Mayor Jean Drapeau, who publicly warned him to skip the Canadiens’ next home game because even showing up would look like a “provocation.” Campbell refused, which inflamed the already angry fans.
When he arrived at a game against the Detroit Red Wings, who were tied for first place with the Canadiens, Campbell was pelted with tomatoes and other debris. A fan punched him in the face, another hurled a canister of tear gas.
The game was abruptly forfeited to the Red Wings and attendees were ordered to leave the arena, swelling the militant crowds rampaging through the streets of downtown Montreal.
The rioters caused an estimated $100,000 in property damage, thirtyseven injuries, and a hundred arrests before the police exerted control. Even the Rocket himself was persuaded to speak on radio the next morning, in French and English, to calm the crowd. Richard’s teammate Boom Boom Geoffrion won the scoring title that season and the Detroit Red Wings took the Stanley Cup. The following year Richard returned to the ice and led his team to the first of five successive Stanley Cup victories.
After that, his glory days on the ice were over. He showed up at training camp in the fall of 1960, but nothing seemed the same, and impulsively he decided to retire in September, a month after his thirty-ninth birthday. He had put on some pounds, his reflexes were slowing down, and he had suffered injuries, including a broken bone in one of his ankles and a severed Achilles tendon, which had kept him from playing the full season in his last three years. Management wanted him to go while the crowds still roared as he slapped the puck into the net – sooner rather than later – and offered him a three-year post-retirement job in public relations at his playing salary.
Years later Richard admitted that he had left the game too soon. He really didn’t know what to do with himself off the ice. Several post-playing positions, including as inaugural coach of the Quebec Nordiques, fizzled. Unlike his teammate Toe Blake, who had a distinguished post-playing career as coach of the Canadiens, or Jean Beliveau, who moved into the executive ranks of the organization, Richard was really only at ease on the ice or at home with his family. Eventually he split with the Canadiens and started a number of business ventures, including owning a tavern, selling fishing tackle, and appearing in commercials endorsing hair products.
What brought him back into the fold and the public eye was the closing ceremonies for the venerable Forum on March 11, 1996. The game itself was not memorable. Instead of one of their traditional rivals – the Leafs, the Bruins, or the Red Wings – the Habs were up against the upstart Dallas Stars. After the final whistle sounded and the three stars had been named in a game in which the bleu-blanc-rouge defeated the Stars 4–1, a work crew unrolled four red carpets stretching in a huge square from the blue lines. As funeral music was played, surviving Hall of Fame players, wearing their team sweaters, walked on to the ice as the crowd roared. The last to appear was Richard. The building erupted in a standing ovation that lasted nearly eight minutes, despite the Rocket’s attempts to quell the cascading waves of applause. It was as though the fans – many of whom were too young to have ever seen him play – recognized the depths of passion in the vulnerable, ageing figure with the taciturn demeanour. They bathed him in love and admiration as though he represented all of their grandfathers. By the time francophone announcer Richard Garneau intoned, “ Mesdames et messieurs,vous avez devant vous le coeur et l’âme du Forum ,” the crowd was spent and Richard himself was weeping.
It was a living tribute, one that would be echoed four years later, when more than 100,000 fans lined up around the clock and around the block to pay their last respects as his coffin lay in state in the new Molson Centre on May 30, 2000. They then thronged the streets the following day to watch the funeral procession wend its way to Notre-Dame Basilica in Old Montreal. It was the end of an era – and the birth of Rocket Richard, nationalist hero.
Lawyer and Supreme Court Judge
September 18, 1923-April 28, 2007
Had Bertha Wilson meekly followed the patriarchal advice handed down to her when she inquired about doing a law degree in the mid-1950s, the Canadian judicial system might have looked very different today.
“Madam, we have no room here for dilettantes. Why don’t you ju st go home and take up crocheting,” Horace E. Read, the dean of the law school at Dalhousie University barked at her when the minister’s wife and former schoolteacher appeared before him, seeking admission to the school in the fall of 1954. He finally relented, according to Madam Justice Wilson, who recounted the story in a rare interview with journalist Sandra Gwyn in Saturday Night magazine in 1985. “From my very first day of classes, I knew the law was my thing,” she said. “I just soaked it up like a sponge.”
Wilson was the first woman appointed a judge of the Ontario Court of Appeal, in 1975, and the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada.
Like most professions, the law was slow to welcome women into its ranks.
There were no female barristers in Ontario until Clara Brett Martin was called to the bar in 1897, three decades after Confederation. By the time Wilson was named a Queen’s Counsel, almost two centuries later, there were still fewer than three hundred female lawyers in the province; it would be another decade before the Law Society of Upper Canada, the self-governing body for lawyers in Ontario, elected Laura Legge as its first female treasurer (head), in 1983. A new century would have to dawn before one of Wilson’s younger colleagues, Beverley McLachlin, became the first woman appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
In Wilson’s day, women had to find not only their own bathrooms but their own niches within corporate firms. She did it by becoming a lawyer’s lawyer and establishing a sub-specialty in estate planning, especially in drawing up wills for the wives of wealthy clients at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt in Toronto. Her forte was research, preparing legal documents, analyzing judgements and statutes, and setting up a nimble information-retrieval system in the days before Quicklaw and LexisNexis. Her diligence and organizing skills enabled her to solve tangled legal questions so adroitly that her billable hours diminished alarmingly, much to the distress of some senior partners.
Her ascendancy as a jurist owes something to circumstance: she had an enlightened husband and no children. John Wilson did the shopping and the cooking and he was proud of his wife’s intellect and her ambition. The intensely private Bertha Wilson never revealed if her lack of offspring was a deliberate choice or a personal sorrow, but it gave her the opportunity to pursue legal studies and to work diligently at a career outside the home.
Timing also played an auspicious role for Wilson. She was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1975 in a dynamic era of family law reform.
Marriage and parenting were being redefined as economic partnerships in which both parties had rights as well as responsibilities. Patriarchal and prejudicial relationships in the workplace and in the home, which had been immutable for centuries, were suddenly open to interpretations based on new readings of legal arguments and current definitions of social, sexual, and racial discrimination.
The same was true of her appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada.
She was sworn in on March 30, 1982, less than three weeks before the Queen arrived in Canada to sign into law the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Consequently, her period on the bench was a pivotal time during which the definitions of individual and collective rights and freedoms were tested, from a woman’s right to abortion to spousal battering as a defence for murder to a refugee claimant’s right to be heard.
Her stance as a triple outsider – as a woman, an immigrant, and the child of a lower-middle-class family – gave her a different perspective from many of her legally and socially connected male colleagues. An independent thinker and a socialist, she was highly principled, with a ramrod integrity. “It’s her sense and her sensibility,” Gwyn explained, “a kind of practical sensitivity tinged with Scottish asperity, enriched but by no means defined by her genes.”
Wilson had the courage to avoid consensus and to speak her mind.
Although she didn’t consider herself a feminist, she believed in equality and fairness. Known as the “Great Dissenter,” she was a prolific writer who wielded an eloquent pen and frequently took minority positions on the Court when it would have been much easier to conform to the views expressed by colleagues. “Bertha was very often out in left field” and “she was stubborn as a mule,” her fellow judge Antonio Lamer told Globe and Mail reporter Kirk Makin in 2002.
“It was not just her brilliant mind, which was remarkable in its rigour, it was the serendipitous presence of Bertha Wilson and Brian Dickson on the Supreme Court of Canada,” Madam Justice Rosalie Abella said after Wilson’s death on April 28, 2007. “I call them the Fred and Ginger of the Charter. They gave it the muscular interpretation that launched the Charter in its first decade,” especially in contrast to the legalistically anemic Bill of Rights that preceded it. Speaking of the jurisprudence that Judge Wilson developed, Abella said that her commitment to fairness was “unshakeable” and her legacy was “profound” in many areas.
That’s not to suggest that Wilson’s appointment to the bench by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was met with enthusiasm or even equanimity. “The ‘establishment’ in the Ontario legal community was shameless in making the case that she wasn’t ‘ready,’” Eddie Goldenberg, then special constitutional advisor to justice minister Jean Chretien, wrote in his memoir The Way ItWorks: Inside Ottawa . “Even Chief Justice Bora Laskin, who had his own preferred candidate at the time, made that argument very vociferously to Prime Minister Trudeau.”
From the beginning, it was the study, not the practice of law that intrigued Wilson. Even so, she brought a quotidian rather than an abstract focus to legal issues that enabled her to see the practical consequences of legal decisions.
Her logical mind would have made her stand out at any time, but it made her especially significant in an era of landmark rulings that reshaped Canadian society. She led the way for all Canadians – and that included women and First Nations – to be equal in private and professional life.
Bertha Wilson was the only daughter and the youngest of Archibald and Christina (nee Noble) Wernham’s three children. She was born on September 18, 1923, in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, an industrial town on the north side of the Firth of Forth. Although her patriotic parents, who had served as a soldier and a nurse in the First World War, never finished high school, they valued education and had high academic expectations for their children. Her father, a commercial traveller for a stationery firm, was rarely home during the week, so her ambitious mother was the prime disciplinarian.
The Wernhams moved to Aberdeen when Bertha was three. After primary school she went to Aberdeen Central Secondary School and then followed her two older brothers, Archibald and James, to the University of Aberdeen. After graduating with a master’s degree in 1944, she went to the local teachers’ training college, earning her certificate in 1945. Despite her mother’s objections, she married John Wilson, a Presbyterian minister, a pacifist, a socialist, and a close friend of her brother Jim, on December 14, 1945.
She was twenty-one; he was twenty-five.
After four years of ministering to the community of Macduff, a fishing village on the northern coast of Aberdeenshire, the Wilsons both wanted to escape the ingrained attitudes of their parishioners. Canada, with its postwar opportunities, beckoned, not least because her brother Jim and his family had settled there. In 1949 the Wilsons sailed across the Atlantic on a converted troop carrier to take up a “call” from a Presbyterian congregation in Renfrew, in the Ottawa Valley.
Yet more waves of change were about to buffet them. John Wilson had come to regret his vocal pacifism during the Second World War and his refusal to serve in the Armed Forces. After forging a close friendship with the Presbyterian Chaplain of the Fleet for the Royal Canadian Navy, Wilson agreed to enlist late in 1951 to serve as an rcn chaplain in the Korean War. His six-year stint meant separation for the Wilsons and an opportunity for her to move to Ottawa, where she found a job working for two dentists – the first time she had worked independently of her husband’s vocation – and then to settle in Halifax, her husband’s home base, where once again she had no official duties related to his work.
Having convinced Dean Horace Read that she was not a dilettante, Wilson, along with five other female students, enrolled in first-year law in 1954. He was so pleased with her response to an exam question at the end of the first term that he read it aloud, adding the comment “I think I’ll make a lawyer of you yet,” according to Ellen Anderson’s biography, Judging BerthaWilson: Law as Large as Life.
Wilson graduated three years later, ranking seventh out of fifty-eight students, tying for the Smith Shield in legal argument, earning the respect of her professors for the intensity of her scholarly curiosity, and winning a graduate scholarship to Harvard. Once again the crusty Read dissuaded her. “There will never be women academics teaching in law schools, not in your day,” he insisted.
Despite her stellar grades, Wilson’s age and the paucity of her local contacts made it difficult for her to win an articling position. She finally found a place with a local criminal lawyer after her corporate law professor interceded on her behalf. When her husband’s naval appointment expired in 1958, the couple, who by then had left the Presbyterian Church for the more liberal United Church, moved to Toronto. That’s where John Wilson had accepted, almost on a whim, a job as an interdenominational fundraiser.
Wilson, who had been called to the Nova Scotia bar but had not yet practised as a full-fledged lawyer, had to article again in Ontario and write the examinations for bar admission. First, though, she had to find a firm willing to take her on as a student. After looking up law firms in the Yellow Pages, she cold-called Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt. They grudgingly took her on after a stern admonishment that there was no possibility she would be hired after her call to the bar. She was thirty-five, a decade older than most articling students.
Once again, intelligence, hard work, and superior organizing abilities won the day. By the time she was called to the bar in May 1959, she had become indispensible for the depth and breadth of her legal research and her crossreferencing of client files and government statutes. Osler’s offered her a permanent position, the first female lawyer they had ever hired. She was made a partner in 1968 and a Queen’s Counsel in 1973, but she never became a senior partner or a member of the management committee.
Just before Christmas of 1975, Ron Basford, then the Liberal minister of justice, surprised Wilson – and many of her colleagues – by inviting her to become the first woman justice on the Ontario Court of Appeal. At her swearing in a month later, she said: “I hope you will forgive me if I confess an element of unreality,” going on to explain that she had never argued a case in court or “practised law in the way most solicitors practise.” She was not apologizing for her lack of litigation experience. On the contrary, she pointed out that the nature of her experience had helped her to remember that “people and the law are inextricably intertwined, and that the role of the profession is essentially to serve the needs of the people.” True to her word, she made a factfinding tour of Ontario prisons so that she could see for herself “exactly where we were sending people.”
In an era of huge advances in family law, her rulings on the Court of Appeal soon attracted the attention of lawyers and judges across the country, especially those who advanced the rights of women. She never pictured herself as a feminist lawyer and shied away from minority groups attempting to cling to her legal gown. Nevertheless, she ruled in favour of the divorced common-law wife of a beekeeper, arguing that she was entitled to a half-share in the business they had built up and run together; she wrote a minority opinion in favour of a girl who was denied a place on a boys’ softball team simply because she was a girl; she found in favour of an East Indian mathematician who claimed she had been discriminated against in job interviews because of her race and wanted to sue in a civil action and claim damages. In all of these cases Wilson found intriguing and innovative legal arguments, no doubt the product of all those years in the research department of Osler’s.
From the beginning of her term on the Supreme Court of Canada in 1982, she wielded a persuasive pen. When the Court widened the legal meaning of self-defence, Wilson was the author of the court’s unanimous decision restoring the jury acquittal of a battered woman who had shot her boyfriend in the back of the head after she had been subjected to years of physical abuse. In rejecting out of hand a man’s historically sanctioned right to own and discipline a woman, she wrote: “A man’s home may be his castle, but it is also a woman’s home – even if it seems more like a prison in the circumstances.”
In the case of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, while other judges ruled on procedural grounds, she wrote in favour of a woman’s constitutional right to choose to have an abortion. “It is not just a medical decision. It is a profound social and ethical one as well. It asserts that the woman’s capacity to reproduce is to be subject not to her control, but to that of the state.” In her written opinion in Regina v. Singh , a case in which she argued that refugee claimants had the right to oral hearings, she wrote: “The guarantees of the Charter would be illusory if they could be ignored because it was administratively inconvenient.”
The ramifications of that decision, which have led to its own inconveniences in appeals and administrative costs, are still hotly debated.
Wilson retired from the Supreme Court on January 4, 1991, at the age of sixty-seven, eight years before the mandatory retirement age of seventy-five.
She cited “diminished energy” as her main reason and said she was looking forward to living a more normal domestic life. In fact she had suffered from high blood pressure for thirty years and had been plagued with arthritis and a series of other health issues. There were other reasons that weren’t publicized at the time. Her great colleague Brian Dickson had retired six months earlier, and she was troubled by what she later described as the cliquish behaviour of some of her male colleagues. “People would spend long periods in each other’s rooms, arguing about changes and amendments, and so on and so forth,” she told her biographer Ellen Anderson. “You might not know anything about this, of course . . . So there was never any kind of opportunity to explain why you didn’t think that was a sound addition, or a sound subtraction.
The first thing you knew was that a group had now formed.”
Wilson had been an assiduous judge, having signed her name to more than 160 decisions, including at least fifty rulings under the Charter, and delivered some sixty-odd major speeches. The Royal Society of Canada elected her a fellow in 1991, she was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada the following year, and she continued to add to her collection of honorary degrees – nearly fifty in total.
She may have stepped down from the Supreme Court, but she was certainly not ready “to sip Campari on the Riviera,” as she herself ruefully admitted. She had become enmeshed in two contentious and unwieldy projects, one within the legal profession and the other without. She agreed to chair the Canadian Bar Association’s Task Force on Women in the Legal Profession. The report, which was called Touchstones , let the legal profession know that women faced the same inequities before the bar as they did in other professions.
Many more women were graduating from law schools, but alarming numbers were leaving the profession. Conclusions about discrimination both before the bar and on the bench and recommendations that changes be made in the brutal system of billable hours to accommodate female lawyers with young children caused a furor within the profession. The stress of raising funds and staffing the commission, researching and writing the report, and then dealing with the acrimonious backlash caused Wilson considerable anguish.
Almost simultaneously with the Task Force, she accepted an appointment from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The three-year mandate was to work with “Canada’s aboriginal peoples,”
conducting hearings into their grievances and their social and economic problems, and to find a way forward “so that they can control their own lives, contribute to Canadian prosperity and can share fully in it.” This was a thornier issue than any she had encountered on the bench. The Commission took five years to complete its report, years of extensive travel, gruelling hearings, eye-opening horror at the sufferings indigenous people had endured, cost overruns, internal staffing issues, and despair that much could be changed.
By the time the report was delivered, Mulroney had retired from active politics and Jean Chretien’s Liberals were in power. For many it seemed too little, too late, but Jane Stewart, the minister of Indian affairs, did offer the First Nations a statement of reconciliation – not apology – in a ceremony on Parliament Hill in January 1998. Stewart also presented an action plan amounting to $600-million over four years, much less than the $2-billion a year the commissioners had recommended.
Frustrating and depleting as it had been to wrestle the final report into submission and to withstand the fractiousness of the deliberations, Wilson found the process illuminating and reaffirming, especially in the way it nurtured the ongoing negotiations for the Nisga’a and Delgamuukw Treaties and the establishment of Nunavut. In many ways the royal commission was the culmination of her judicial activism on behalf of fairness and justice.
As the century turned, Wilson retreated more and more from public life as the fogginess of Alzheimer’s disease gradually destroyed her virtuosity.
With her faithful husband of sixty-one years by her side, she died at Rideau Place on-the-River in Ottawa on April 28, 2007. She was eighty-three.
Ernest Alvia (“Smoky”) Smith
Winner of the Victoria Cross
May 3, 1914-August 3, 2005
A rowdy, spunky fellow who liked drinking, smoking, and roistering, Smoky Smith wasn’t the romantic Victorian ideal of a dashing hero on a white charger. A private in the Canadian Army, he was promoted to corporal nine times and demoted back to private just as often, until he showed his mettle at the River Savio in the brutal Italian campaign of the Second World War.
In real life, heroes typically don’t come off an assembly line. They are usually ordinary folk like Smith who step into the fire, driven by a mixture of guts, circumstance, and adrenalin. Instead of blustering, they willingly sacrifice their own safety for the benefit of others. That’s what Smith did. He single– handedly destroyed a German tank, forced the enemy to retreat, and saved the life of a wounded comrade. That alone should have earned him a medal. But Smith’s bravery went further than personal valour: he inspired his fellow soldiers to demonstrate their own heroism.
That’s why he deserved the Victoria Cross, the only private of the sixteen Canadians who won the award during the Second World War. The citation read in part: “By the dogged determination, outstanding devotion to duty, and superb gallantry of this private soldier, his comrades were so inspired that the bridgehead was held firm against all enemy attacks, pending the arrival of tanks and anti-tank guns some hours later.”
Queen Victoria introduced the VC on January 29, 1856, to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War. Supposedly the medals were struck from metal extracted from Russian cannons captured at the siege of Sebastopol in 1854–55, but recent research has cast doubt on that swelling narrative. Be that as it may, the VC even now is the ultimate award for bravery in the face of the enemy. It was reconstituted in 1993 as the Canadian Victoria Cross, but no Canadian has received it since the end of the Second World War.
Smoky Smith was famous in Canada because he was the last surviving recipient of the VC, but that is not why he was loved. He was loved because he wore his heroism simply and he didn’t glorify war. “Even Germans do not like to be shot,” he said sixty years after winning the medal. “I don’t take prisoners. Period. I’m not prepared to take prisoners. I’m paid to kill them. That’s the way it is.”
There was no swagger about Smith as he attended Remembrance Day ceremonies and represented his country at poignant anniversaries both here and on the battlefields of Europe. He was the known soldier, to be sure, but he was also a regular guy who could relate to young and old with a quip and a wink and a modesty that did him and us proud. “I am not the hero,” he was fond of saying. “The real heroes are the ones left over there buried in the ground.”
Ernest Alvia Smith was born in New Westminster, British Columbia, on May 3, 1914, a few months before the outbreak of the “war to end all wars.”
The elder son of John Alvia and Barmarie Smith’s four children, he grew up in a working-class family. His father was a truck driver and his mother a homemaker.
After elementary school he went to T. J. Trap Technical High School.
Sitting behind a desk was not nearly as interesting to him as athletics, especially track and soccer. His nickname “Smoky”(which later became “Smokey” in the popular press) may date from those days because of the speed with which he left rivals in his wake, or smoke, as he raced around the track. On the other hand, he was a smoker who only gave up cigarettes in his fifties, although he continued to indulge in a nightly cigar. Smith, who knew the value of a smokescreen, always claimed he didn’t know how he acquired the moniker.
Smith entered the workforce just as the Depression had ground the economy into dust. He worked sporadically in a cannery, a cedar shake mill, and an electrical shop and even rode the rails from one community to another looking for work. The Second World War offered him an opportunity to serve his country and earn a steady paycheque. He enlisted in the Seaforth Highlanders in Vancouver on March 5, 1940, at the age of twenty-five. After basic training he was shipped overseas and was stationed in England and Scotland in the early years of the war. His real fighting came with the bloody Italian campaign.
The Seaforths landed in Sicily on July 10, 1943, as part of the First Canadian Infantry Division attached to the Eighth Army. They spent the next eighteen months pushing German forces back up the boot of Italy. Smith suffered a shrapnel wound in the chest in the fighting and spent two months in hospital in North Africa before he was back in the line.
By October 1944 the Seaforths had made their way as far north as the Savio River. That’s when Smith entered the history books. The Canadians needed to establish a crossing over the river but the enemy and the weather were against them. Torrential rain had caused the water to rise some six feet in five hours and turned the riverbanks into mush.
To advance, the troops would have to wade or swim through the raging current and rising water levels and then fight the Germans without the protective cover of their tanks. “It had been raining for days and the rain pelted down in sheets,” Smith said in a cbc interview in 1956, one of the few times he talked publicly about his wartime experiences. “The ground was one big bog.”
That was the situation on the eastern bank of the Savio late in the afternoon of October 20, when the first troops were sent into the river. A shower of gunfire and grenades came from the opposite bank, pinning down the troops until they were able to retreat under cover of darkness. The next morning the enemy began pounding the Canadians on the eastern approaches to the river.
That night another group of soldiers, including Smith, made it across the river and took cover.
That’s when Smith learned that the forward company was under attack from three German Mark V Panther tanks supported by two self-propelled guns and some thirty infantry. With cunning ingenuity, he led his piat (a British-designed anti-tank weapon that had been introduced only the year before in the Sicilian campaign) team of two men across an open field, positioning the weapon in a ditch alongside the road so it could be trained on the enemy. Leaving one man there, Smith crossed the road with his comrade Jimmy Tennant and obtained another piat. At that moment a German tank came clanking down the road, firing its machine guns into the ditches and wounding Tennant.
Showing defiance and a complete disregard for his own safety, Smith started firing his piat, scoring a direct hit and putting the tank out of commission.
Ten German infantrymen jumped off the back of the tank and charged him with Schmeisser submachine guns and grenades. Undaunted, Smith moved out onto the road and started mowing them down with his Tommy gun. He killed four Germans and drove the rest back. Another tank rumbled into view and opened fire, and more infantry were closing in on Smith. When he ran out of ammunition, he ran back to the ditch and grabbed some of Tennant’s and held the enemy at bay while protecting his comrade.
In the melee, Smith had destroyed one tank and two self-propelled guns.
Yet another tank appeared in the distance, sweeping the area with a longerrange gun. Still under fire, Smith helped his wounded comrade to cover behind a nearby building and obtained medical aid for him before returning to his position beside the road to combat further enemy action. None materialized, so the battalion was able to consolidate its bridgehead and await the arrival of its own tanks and anti-tank guns. This led to the capture of San Giorgio di Cesena and the advance further north to the Ronco River. Later Smith was hailed as a “one-man army” for the way he had single-handedly fought off the German tanks.
King George VI bestowed Smith’s VC medal at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace in December 1944. Smith’s superior officers were so concerned that he would appear dishevelled, or worse, at the ceremony that they locked him up in a jail cell in Italy the night before he was supposed to board the plane taking him to London for the investiture. That’s another story, like the tale about his nickname, that Smith refused to confirm or deny, although he did allow in one interview that he was kept in custody in London before meeting the King. “There’s a town full of women out there and here I am in jail,” he said with mock chagrin. “It’s only because I was good-looking.”
After receiving his VC, Smith retreated from the front lines and spent what remained of the war drumming up support for the Canadian War Bonds drive. He was demobilized in April 1945 and returned to Vancouver. Two years later he married photographer Esther Weston. Together they operated a photography studio in New Westminster and raised two children, David and Norma-Jean.
Smith re-enlisted in the Armed Forces in 1950 to serve in the Korean War.
He was promoted to the rank of sergeant but was not sent into combat because of his legendary status. Instead he served as a recruiting agent in Vancouver until he retired once again in 1964, at age fifty. He was given the Canadian Forces Decoration for his dozen years of service.
The Smiths opened a travel agency called Smith Travel in 1969, which they operated for more than twenty years, with Smith often taking clients on tours to sites connected with the Second World War. They couple retired in 1992, the year he turned seventy-eight. His wife died four years later, in 1996.
As other veterans died, Smith became iconic as the last surviving recipient of the VC. He was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 1995 and a member of the Order of British Columbia in 2002. He also made many appearances at veterans’ events, Remembrance Day ceremonies, and significant military milestones, including the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1967, the fiftieth anniversary of the Normandy invasion in 1995, and the consecration ceremony of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa in May 2000.
Smith died at his home in Vancouver on August 3, 2005, at ninety-one, his body was flown to Ottawa to lie in state in the foyer of the House of Commons on August 9. The government flags were flying at half-mast, an extremely rare honour for a citizen who was neither a former prime minister nor a governor general.
Smith’s coffin made the long journey back across the country for a second vigil, at Vancouver’s Seaforth Armoury on August 12, before a full military funeral the following day. As per Smith’s wishes, his ashes were sprinkled at sea, presumably so that his grave could not become a shrine, although friends suggested a different reason: he didn’t want to be put in the ground because he had buried too many of his friends.
As a final act of remembrance, he left instructions in his will that his medals, including the VC, which could have been sold for a huge sum, be donated to the Seaforth Highlanders. The regiment has replicas on display in its museum and exhibits the genuine medals on special occasions only, as a memorial to its most celebrated member.
Excerpts from Working the Deadbeat (c) 2012 Copyright Sandra Martin. Reprinted by permission of House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved. No part of these excerpts may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. www.houseofanansi.comReport Typo/Error