Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Fred Kaufman, 89, in his Toronto home on Aug. 2, 2013. Kaufman landed in Ripples N.B., outside Fredericton in a Second World War internment camp after fleeing Nazi Germany and went on to become a leading judge on the Quebec Court of Appeal.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

In July of 1939, 15-year-old Fred Kaufman boarded a train in Vienna, Austria, bound alone for England and an uncertain fate. For his parents, it was a gut-wrenching decision to bid farewell to their only child as he set off on a Kindertransport for Jewish children fleeing the Nazi regime. But they felt they had no choice.

Yet for Fred, it was also the start of an adventure. “While I was overcome with a mixture of sadness and guilt for leaving home without my parents, I also felt a certain excitement. A whole new world lay ahead and rather than fearing the unknown, as a wiser person might have done, I looked forward to a fresh start in life,” Mr. Kaufman recalled later in a memoir.

And what an extraordinary life it turned out to be. Fred Kaufman, who died in Toronto on Dec. 27 at the age of 99, arrived in Canada in 1940 as “an enemy alien,” but through an amazing conjuncture of intellect, talent and personal drive worked his way through university, becoming a journalist, a respected criminal lawyer, a leading judge on the Quebec Court of Appeal and in “retirement,” the head of inquiries into two of the country’s most notorious wrongful conviction cases.

“Fred was truly unique both in the breadth of the work he did, which was quite remarkable, and the fact he excelled in everything he did,” said Mark Sandler, a Toronto criminal lawyer who collaborated with Mr. Kaufman on three of the one-man inquiries he conducted on behalf of governments over the past 30 years. “He had it all, wisdom and common sense. He was the personification of everything you want to aspire to as a lawyer and as a person.”

Fred Kaufman was born on May 7, 1924, in Vienna, the only child of Richard Kaufman, a textile salesman, and Alice Kaufman, a housewife and seamstress. They had a modest middle-class life that was undermined first by the economic trials of the Depression and then by the official antisemitism that took hold of Austria after the Anschluss of 1938, when German troops marched into Austria to a cheering public. Like other Jews, Mr. Kaufman eventually lost his job.

The family realized they needed to flee. Mr. Kaufman’s mother had two brothers living in Detroit but it was hard to get visas to the United States so Fred’s parents reluctantly decided the Kindertransport was the best option for their son. (The couple managed to flee Vienna in 1941 and settled in New York. Fred’s maternal grandfather was killed in the Holocaust.)

Arriving in England, young Fred was fostered by a kind dairy farmer and his family in northern England. He did chores on the farm and attended a local grammar school. But in May of 1940, the British government ordered the internment of all “enemy aliens” over the age of 16 living in areas where German paratroopers were likely to land. There was no distinction made between Jewish refugees and other German nationals. Fred was arrested and sent to the Isle of Man before being shipped off to Canada with hundreds of other refugees.

After initially being interned in Minto, N.B., Fred was moved to a new camp in Sherbrooke, Que. There was no formal schooling but the camp was filled with talented refugees, who began offering courses and cultural activities, which Fred consumed passionately. Art appreciation was taught by Max Stern, who later ran Montreal’s Dominion Gallery, and music was taught by Helmut Blume, who later became McGill University’s dean of music.

Open this photo in gallery:

An internee wood-cutting crew at work in 1941 in Ripples, N.B., with Kaufman sitting at the bottom left.

By 1942, the rules were loosened and the government began allowing internees to remain in Canada if they could secure sponsors. Fred was taken in by the family of the local rabbi and registered at Sherbrooke High School, where he flourished and was chosen as class valedictorian for his 1943 graduating class. He attended Bishop’s University on a scholarship and graduated with a BSc. He immediately got a job as a reporter for the Sherbrooke Record and soon moved on to The Montreal Star, where for six years he covered everything from royal visits to the asbestos miners’ strike. But he was fascinated by court reporting and decided to become a lawyer.

Getting a law degree at McGill as a mature student without a BA proved challenging but Mr. Kaufman persisted. He not only succeeded but he won the gold medal for top grades on the Quebec Bar Exams. He articled for Joseph Cohen, a noted criminal lawyer, and developed a reputation as a go-to lawyer on a range of matters. Over the next 18 years, he argued for the defence in 49 homicide cases and became a fervent opponent of the death penalty. But he also was frequently called upon to act for the Crown, including in the aftermath of the 1969 occupation of the computer centre at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) and during the 1970 October Crisis, when he was one of a small group of top lawyers advising the Quebec government over how to deal with the hundreds arrested under the War Measures Act.

Mr. Kaufman’s legal partners during those years, Harvey Yarosky and Morris Fish, became distinguished lawyers in their own right. Mr. Fish was a student at McGill Law School in the 1960s when he first encountered Mr. Kaufman, then a part-time lecturer in criminal evidence and procedure. “He was always patient, knowledgeable and clear in conveying his understanding of the law,” Mr. Fish told The Globe. As a lawyer, he was “highly organized” and focused.

Mr. Fish described Mr. Kaufman as “a wonderful partner” and the three men never had a serious argument in their years together. They didn’t bother to draw up a formal partnership contract but had agreed early on their respective stakes in the firm. When Mr. Kaufman left in 1973 after being appointed a Justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal, the three men met to determine how they would divide up the finances of the partnership. “All I remember is that Fred wanted less and we thought he was entitled to more,” said Mr. Fish, who went on to be appointed to the Quebec Court of Appeal and to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2003. He retired in 2013. Mr. Yarosky died in 2022.

Mr. Kaufman thrived on the Appeals Court and for a time was acting Chief Justice of the court. Despite the pressures of the position, he always had time for his children, Leslie and David, who also went on to become lawyers. “Even though he would be immersed in his work, if we walked into his office, he would immediately put everything down and we would have 100 per cent of his attention,” said David Kaufman, who heads a Toronto wealth management firm. “He was completely devoted to my Mom, my sister and me.”

When he retired from the Quebec appeals court in 1991, he completed an executive MBA and a few years later, moved to Toronto at the urging of his children. Mr. Kaufman also blamed the “foul taste” that remained with him after the comments of Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau who blamed the separatist loss in the 1995 referendum on “money and the ethnic vote.”

Instead of retiring, Mr. Kaufman embarked on a new career. The Ontario government appointed the former judge to preside over an inquiry into the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin, who was found guilty of first-degree murder in the case of Christine Jessop, a nine-year-old girl from Queensville, Ont., who was killed in 1984. Mr. Morin, a next-door neighbour, was sentenced to life but was only exonerated 10 years later after DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Mr. Kaufman heard from 120 witnesses over 146 days of hearings. His four-volume report zeroed on some of the issues that caused the miscarriage of justice against Mr. Morin, including the questionable use of jailhouse informants, sloppy forensic investigation techniques and confirmation bias by police, what Mr. Kaufman called the “tunnel vision” that meant police failed to seek out alternative suspects.

His final report, made public in 1998, made 119 recommendations, which the Ontario government vowed to implement. In his memoir, Mr. Kaufman called the Morin report “the most important undertaking of my career.”

Two decades later, in 2020, Toronto police identified Calvin Hoover as the likely murderer in the death of Christine Jessop. Mr. Hoover, who died in 2015, was identified thanks to advances in forensic genealogy techniques. A family friend of the Jessops, Mr. Hoover had never even been formally interviewed by police.

Mr. Kaufman went on to conduct other inquiries, including one on nuclear safety and another on corruption in professional hockey. In 2002, Mr. Kaufman conducted his final inquiry, into the case of Steven Truscott, who had been convicted at the age of 14 for the brutal 1959 murder of Lynne Harper in Clinton, Ont. Mr. Truscott was tried as an adult, and despite inconclusive evidence, was convicted and sentenced to death, although it was later commuted to life in prison. He served 10 years in prison before being granted parole but he had to live with burden of the conviction.

Yet the sense that a miscarriage of justice had occurred never disappeared and the federal government asked Mr. Kaufman to review the case. After two years, Mr. Kaufman, who turned 80 that year, concluded that there was new evidence and that a considerable amount of evidence in the original case had never been disclosed to Mr. Truscott’s lawyers. He said there was reason to believe that “a miscarriage of justice had occurred.”

Mr. Kaufman recommended a review by the Ontario Court of Appeal. In 2007 the court quashed the conviction, which had been in place for 45 years, and ordered that Mr. Truscott be acquitted. He was later awarded $6.5-million in compensation.

Mr. Kaufman was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 1992 and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2002. He was awarded an honorary degree by the University of New Brunswick in 2012.

Mr. Kaufman leaves his wife, Donna Soble Kaufman; daughter, Leslie; son, David; and three grandchildren.

You can find more obituaries from The Globe and Mail here.

To submit a memory about someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page, email us at

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe