It was 1957, and a little-known lawyer named Bertha Wilson – today better known as the first woman on the Supreme Court of Canada – was making the rounds on Bay Street looking for a job.
It wasn’t an era when women were warmly embraced in the clubby male world inside Toronto’s largest law firms, but she found supporters at the small firm of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, where fellow Dalhousie law school alumnus Purdy Crawford was one of the lawyers who saw her potential and supported her hiring.
Initially Ms. Wilson worked primarily as a researcher at the firm. Over time, she increasingly worked closely with Mr. Crawford on cases, providing a depth of legal expertise as the gregarious Mr. Crawford won business and worked with clients.
Mr. Crawford later insisted he was not Ms. Wilson’s mentor, but rather a colleague who relied heavily on her excellent work. But friends say his support for Ms. Wilson’s advancement was characteristic of Mr. Crawford’s career, in which he repeatedly became an advocate for people with talent. That included numerous women in decades long before it was common for men to sponsor women’s professional careers.
“I often cite [Bertha Wilson] as a female role model, but I say that I would not likely be talking about her at all if she hadn’t had a Purdy Crawford giving her an opportunity to use her talents fully,” said Alex Johnston, a lawyer and long-time Crawford family friend, who now heads the women’s advocacy group Catalyst Canada.
Mr. Crawford, who died in Toronto on Tuesday at age 82 after a long illness, became a pillar of Canada’s business community as a corporate lawyer and as a business executive who headed giant conglomerate Imasco Ltd. for a decade from 1985 to 1995.
He was also a reform advocate who headed numerous committees and task forces to deal with crises or spur improvements to business regulations.
Author Gordon Pitts, who has just completed a book about Mr. Crawford’s life, said his greatest contribution to Canada was a private role: serving as a personal mentor for generations of young people who now form a who’s who of Canada’s most influential leaders, including Governor-General David Johnston, Toronto-Dominion Bank chief executive Ed Clark, and former Home Depot Canada chief executive Annette Verschuren.
For most of his life, Mr. Crawford never thought of himself as a mentor, Mr. Pitts said, and the term was not as widely used in bygone decades. Instead, he fell into the role naturally. He had an outgoing personality, loved to remember details of everyone’s life, and would generously open doors to help his legions of friends.
“There aren’t many people like that, when you look at his influence,” said Mr. Pitts, a former Globe and Mail reporter. “And I don’t think there is any male business leader who had more to do with the advancement of women than Purdy Crawford. He was a mentor before mentoring was hot – he didn’t even know what to call it.”
In 2013, Mr. Crawford received a special recognition award from Catalyst Canada for advancing women on boards of directors.
Deborah Alexander, executive vice-president and general counsel at Bank of Nova Scotia, said Mr. Crawford was her most important mentor as a young lawyer. “He was also so much more,” Ms. Alexander said. “He was a friend and a confidante, and much of my personal success is attributable to him.”
Harold Purdy Crawford was born on Nov. 7, 1931, in the tiny town of Five Islands, N.S. His mother, Grace, was a divorcée with two sons when she met coal miner Frank Crawford, a widower. They married and later had Purdy, who grew up with two half-brothers and a half-sister.
His mother, who lived to 94, was “formidable,” recalled granddaughter Heather Crawford, one of Mr. Crawford’s six children. Grace is credited as one of the early influences who helped make him a supporter of women in an era when they were rarely encouraged to succeed in careers or often even pursue higher studies.