An accomplished corporate lawyer, James Richard Chalker was senior partner in the St. John’s law firm Chalker, Green and Rowe (now joined with McInnes Cooper) and represented every Newfoundland and Labrador government – Liberal and PC – from Joseph Smallwood through Frank Moores and Brian Peckford to Clyde Wells, Brian Tobin and Roger Grimes.
No matter their political affiliation, they valued him. A March 1, 1998, headline, “Province hires top guns,” called him one of a “legal dream team” retained by Tobin to work on the Lower Churchill power project. The others were a virtual Who’s Who of Newfoundland lawyers and politicians: Clyde Wells, John Crosbie and Ed Roberts.
Chalker fit right in, though he never sought political office, or the limelight. But his career included many significant legal milestones. “Since Confederation, he was one of our outstanding lawyers,” said Crosbie. “He was a leading practitioner.”
Chalker was the last, and one of the very few lawyers in the province to appear before Britain’s Judicial Council of Privy Council, in a case that changed control of Harvey Group of Companies. There he was successful for the appellant, a remarkable achievement.
He acted for both the Russian and Japanese governments, represented the province in its first attempt at challenging the Churchill Falls contract, and represented Atlantic Trading Delaware in what was then the largest bankruptcy in Canadian history, with the Come by Chance refinery, in 1976, owing $500-million.
His many other files included appearing as a counsel before the Hughes Inquiry (1989-1991), working on a significant case of wrongful dismissal and acting for the telephone company when it was still regulated provincially.
Very involved in the regulation and development of power, Chalker was also the former chairman of Newfoundland Hydro (1992-1996), was appointed CEO of CF(L)Co in 1989 and also sat on the board of private companies such as A. Harvey & Co. Ltd.
“Jim became a pre-eminent corporate lawyer in St. John’s, a pre-eminent counsel in Newfoundland, and he did a lot of litigation as well,” said Roberts. “He had a piece of many of the more interesting issues. He was a very capable lawyer. He knew the law. He worked hard. And he was a man of his word.”
Chalker died on Feb. 6, at the age of 80, at Chancellor Park nursing home in St. John’s. He had suffered a severe stroke in 2001, and early this year endured another stroke, as well as complications including pneumonia.
He was born on Sept 19, 1931, in Toronto, and moved to St. John’s as a young boy. He was the only child of Kay Dermody, who was born in New York of Irish parents, and Dick Chalker, who was born in Boston of Newfoundland parents.
His father was an engineer who received his degree from McGill. But he was unable to get a job during the Depression – according to family lore he could only find employment selling vacuum cleaners – so he moved to Newfoundland to work for his friend Charlie Bell, whose company imported appliances and radios.
The Chalkers first lived on the west end of Water Street, in a house next door to the Crosbies. Then they had a house on Duckworth Street, near the Newfoundland Hotel.
“Funny story to that,” Chalker’s daughter Susan Chalker-Browne said in an e-mail. “My grandfather rented the bottom floor to Joe Smallwood and his family, while he, Nanny and Dad lived upstairs. During the fight over Confederation, there was a sign for Confederation in the bottom floor window and a sign for Responsible Government in the second floor window. The Globe and Mail ran a photo of the house, with the caption, “Newfoundland – A House Divided.”
Chalker attended Bishop Field, as did Crosbie. “In those days you went by the streetcar,” Crosbie said. “We lived below Lester’s field, which was a marvellous place for skiing and sliding and a small pond for skating and hockey. We had our gang and in those days you had to be careful which gang’s territory you were on.”
Chalker and Crosbie’s friendship lasted throughout Chalker’s life, and, among other things brought Crosbie together with his wife, Jane Furneaux, at a dance party Chalker gave when he was 17. (“I hadn’t seen her since Kindergarten at Bishop Spencer,” Crosbie said.)
Chalker then attended Memorial University before graduating from Dalhousie in 1956, with a law degree, and was shortly called to the bar.
“The bar was very small then, roughly 60 members, and we all knew each other very well,” said Roberts. “It was a very civil place in those days.” And this civilized tone was one Chalker always maintained in his thorough, quiet work.
“He was never interested in active politics,” Crosbie said. “I’m sure he was asked to run, that he was courted. And I’m sure he could have been appointed to the Supreme Court. Most lawyers like to get on the bench. But it’s tough to be a judge, it’s difficult, and, in a way, it’s lonely. He preferred the activity of private practice, and was satisfied in being a lawyer. His firm developed into a major one and recently joined McInnes Cooper and is one of the four major law firms in Atlantic Canada. He retired at the top.”
Chalker married Barbara Galway on July 6, 1957. The bride was 21, and her family, of nine girls and one boy, was famous for having beautiful and cultured daughters who liked to marry St. John’s lawyers. They built a family home on Dublin Road. Chalker enjoyed golfing, and he was very good at it. He loved music and, most of all, reading. And his memory for what he had read was amazing, as he could recount details of a book read a decade before.
Affable, personable, and respected, Chalker officially retired in 2008, but his reputation never waned.
As one example, beginning in 1976, he had represented the province of Newfoundland in what was dubbed “the recall case,” the first of two attempts by the provincial government to overturn the Churchill Falls contract. The lawsuit lasted 12 years, and the trial more than a year. Thomas G. Heintzman, consul and retired partner of McCarthy Tetrault in Toronto, was on the other side, representing Hydro Québec.
“We were in court a lot,” Heintzman said. “He impressed me. I’m an old-school guy, I think you should be tough but a gentleman. He was well-spoken, courteous, but he gave no yards, he was a very good cross-examiner, and persuasive with his arguments.”
Although Hydro Québec was successful, there was no personal rancour between the two. They continued to see each other in Toronto and St. John’s.
“I liked his demeanour. It’s an attribute of the bar … there’s something civil about going at it hammer and tongs but in an environment that permits intelligent and decent debate. In court we call our opponent ‘my friend.’ If you really want to dig at them, you call them ‘my honourable friend.’ An American lawyer [I knew]said, ‘We call our opponents lots of things, but never friend.’ But that’s how I always thought of Jim.”
Chalker was predeceased by his wife, Barbara, in 2008. He leaves his daughter, Susan, sons John and Michael and six grandchildren. The last of the “Galway husbands,” he also leaves sisters-in-law Mary Tucker, Katherine Devine, Mercedes McCarthy, Teresita Williams, Isabelle Goodridge and Betty Galway.
Special to The Globe and Mail