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Rod Macdonald once tried to promote independent thinking in a group of 300 judges by playing his Gibson Hummingbird guitar and singing a folk song written by Phil Ochs. (Rachel Granofsky)
Rod Macdonald once tried to promote independent thinking in a group of 300 judges by playing his Gibson Hummingbird guitar and singing a folk song written by Phil Ochs. (Rachel Granofsky)

obituary

Roderick Macdonald: A mentor to generations of lawyers Add to ...

From an early age, Roderick Macdonald set his heart on doing the impossible. And then did it.

After his older brother, Craig, had tried for years to create a hang glider that actually worked – long before the hang-gliding craze started – a teenaged Rod built one (with Craig’s help) and flew it off a hill and across a wide field.

He decided to paddle a canoe to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto from Camp Kandalore, where he was assistant director, hundreds of kilometres away in central Ontario. At one point he and a friend who accompanied him portaged for nearly 25 kilometres along a highway, one carrying the canoe, the other carrying their packs. In a matter of days, he and the friend reached the CNE.

Then, although he had never played anything more than touch football, the 6-foot-2 young man tried out to become the first-string quarterback for York University’s varsity team under head coach Nobby Wirkowski, formerly the coach of the Toronto Argos. He made it (although he stepped aside once he’d reached his goal, not wanting to risk an injury).

Then he turned that same determined, questing spirit on a career as a law professor.

An anglophone from Toronto, he became a leading expert in Quebec’s Civil Code, and the subject of a French-language biography. An unconventional thinker who played old-time protest songs on his guitar, he worked from within the mainstream legal community – as law dean at McGill University, and later as head of the Law Commission of Canada. Prof. Macdonald, who died of cancer on June 13 at the age of 65, never practised law – yet he became internationally recognized for his expertise not merely in one area of law but in a half-dozen or more.

But ultimately, while his ideas and articles have been cited in at least 15 Supreme Court rulings, and while his report on residential schools for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples helped pave the way for the Canadian government’s 2008 apology and compensation, his most pronounced effects on the law may be largely invisible. They are the marks he left as an unusually gifted teacher and mentor to generations of law students who grew up to become practising lawyers, judges, academics and politicians.

The boy who set out to prove anything was possible became a teacher who encouraged his students to prove it, too.

“At heart he had a deeply optimistic conception of human potential and strove to help people realize that potential in all of his interactions,” said David Sandomierski, a former student of his at McGill, and his co-author on a paper in which Prof. Macdonald set down some of his most deeply held beliefs about the law.

That same optimism pervaded his view of the law: “He believed that law is a beautiful, powerful human creation that can help us lead better, more just lives,” Mr. Sandomierski said. “There is a continuity between how he treated you as an individual and what he believed law’s promise was to society.”

Born on Aug. 6, 1948, Rod MacDonald was a middle-class son of a homemaker mother and a civil-engineer father who had been an officer in the Second World War. He was raised in Toronto.

His biographer, Andrée Lajoie, said in an interview that he got his energy “from trying to be noticed. He was a middle child and his parents were more interested in the other children.”

Craig Macdonald said his brother sought their mother’s approval till her death in 1981, three years before Prof. Macdonald became law dean at McGill, and never felt he obtained it.

Still, Prof. Macdonald’s brother and sister had a similar pattern of setting out on arduous quests. Craig, a biologist, spent 20 years creating a historical map of Ontario’s Temagami region, featuring the sites of 1,200 portages, and 30 winter snowshoe routes, and all documented with the Anishinaabemowin names – which he learned from interviews with 400 elders. Sandra, their sister, a social worker who used to work with inmates at Toronto’s Don Jail, once drove with friends from London to South Africa, then hitchhiked north to Israel.

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