Most lawyers never have the opportunity to argue a case before the Supreme Court of Canada. Leslie Hall Pinder, an eloquent defender of the rights of First Nations, appeared before the Supreme Court a dozen times in a career spanning four decades. In that period Indigenous litigation grew and blossomed, transforming from an obscure specialty rarely mentioned in law schools, for clients who often couldn’t pay, into an exciting legal area of central importance to the country.
Her close friend, the writer and anthropologist Hugh Brody, said in a phone interview from his home in London that Ms. Pinder had not sought fame or glory, only a more fair and honourable relationship between Canada its Indigenous people.
They first met when Mr. Brody was an expert witness in a case in which the Blueberry Hill and Doig River bands in northern British Columbia sought to reclaim land taken from them after the Second World War by the Canadian government and given to returning war veterans. The land was sitting on an oil reserve and the veterans became extremely wealthy.
“It was apparent that the people had been hoodwinked,” Mr. Brody recalled. “The Indigenous witnesses were badly treated in court, and Justice George Addy was very hostile to Leslie. She was desperately unhappy.” The judge ruled against Ms. Pinder’s client but she eventually won the case in the Supreme Court of Canada. Its 1995 ruling established that the bands were entitled to compensation for Canada’s breach of fiduciary duty when it failed to protect the mineral rights for the bands when it gave reserve land to returning veterans.
“Leslie repeatedly argued that the government had a fiduciary duty to Indigenous people, it had a duty of care, same as a guardian,” he said.
Ms. Pinder in addition was the author of four novels, most of them structured around a dramatic trial. She often wrote during her lunch hour at the office, sometimes taking Fridays off to find more writing time. Justice Addy made his condescending way into her most successful novel On Double Tracks, as the bigoted fictional judge Theodore Selbie.
As a founding partner in the feminist legal firm Mandell Pinder LLP in Vancouver, Ms. Pinder was instrumental along with her colleagues in advancing First Nations rights in several landmark cases on fishing, taxation, the recognition of land title and the legal validity of oral history. After her death on June 12 in Victoria General Hospital following a stroke, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) issued a statement: “Leslie was a beautiful soul who listened and acted with care, intelligence, and conviction as a trusted ally and tireless advocate for justice. … She was a respectful and energetic presence at meetings of our Chiefs’ Council, always attentive when hearing about our experiences and the effects of Canadian legal systems on our lives.”
Her expertise was also sought by the Nez Percé Indians of Idaho in 1989 fighting a hydro dam on their territory that would harm the salmon fisheries. And she went with Mr. Brody to South Africa and Namibia to advise on issues of Aboriginal land title and the use of oral history in those countries.
She went to London in 1981 with her law partner Ms. Mandell on behalf of UBCIC to make sure Indigenous rights, promised in perpetuity by Queen Victoria, were not forgotten by Westminster in the Parliamentary vote on sending Canada’s Constitution home. Their trip was part of the Constitution Express, a broad movement started by UBCIC Chief George Manuel to publicize concerns that Aboriginal rights were not affirmed in the proposed Canadian Constitution. The UBCIC retained a British lawyer to launch a case against patriation, not wishing to lose the protection of the British Crown.
Ms. Mandell recalled in an email: “Leslie and I instructed the lawyers. We prepared the case and the documentary evidence and worked with our London legal team to navigate a path procedurally in the London courts.” The two young Canadians staggered around London in those pre-internet days with boxes of relevant documents they had brought with them, since the English lawyers were unfamiliar with Canadian history. They also lobbied MPs and members of the House of Lords. “Leslie was in London for months at a time.” In the end, changes to the Constitution made the lawsuit unnecessary.
Born Leslie Joyce Hall on Sept. 21, 1948, in Elrose, Sask., she was one of three children of Ray Hall, then a country doctor whom she adored, and of Margaret (née Rathwell), a homemaker. Dr. Hall decided to study ophthalmology at the University of Toronto, taking along Margaret and their three children, after which the family moved to Saskatoon.
After her father’s early death, her mother remarried. Ross Pinder, a widower, adopted Jeff, Leslie and Janet and had three more children with Margaret in quick succession: Terri, Doug and Paul. In several of her novels, Leslie Pinder later explored her sense of childhood displacement.
She was a brainy student in Saskatoon and junior golf champion of the province, with an impressive swing. She took an English degree at the University of Saskatchewan and thought she might become a writer after the CBC broadcast a story she had written. By then she realized she was attracted to women and headed to Vancouver.
“Certainly one couldn’t be openly gay in Saskatoon in the 1960s, but we, her siblings, knew,” her sister Janet Pinder recalled. “If we didn’t know before, we certainly knew when we visited her in Vancouver.”
Over the years, Ms. Pinder had a number of romantic relationships, the longest with the late actor and drama therapist Trish Grainge, with whom she lived for 15 years.
She enrolled in – then dropped out of – the Master’s program in English at the University of British Columbia, taking a job with the police instead, then finding work as a court recorder. Fascinated by the legal profession, she enrolled at UBC’s law school where she took the only course offered in Indigenous litigation. Her teacher Michael Jackson remained a lifelong friend.
A fortuitous encounter with fellow students Louise Mandell and Clo Ostrove, who shared her ideals, led eventually to the creation in 1983 of an all-female law firm that is still going strong, though it now includes men. Initially all three worked as in-house counsel for the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, where they were trained in listening skills and learned to understand an oral culture that did not write down its history.
“They would go into communities and sit with the elders and hear their stories. They would ask what they needed, what they wanted. They went to the sweat lodges and the ceremonies,” said Catherine Wedge, a judge who was Ms. Pinder’s common-law partner in the final decade of her life. The two women had adjacent townhouses in False Creek until they moved together into Justice Wedge’s Salt Spring Island vacation home to escape the pandemic. (Ms. Pinder had built herself a spectacular off-the-grid summer home on remote Hardy Island, with solar panels, a generator and two boats, but sold it two years ago when it became too much for her to manage alone.)
Among Mandell Pinder’s famous cases was the Delgamuukw trial, named for a Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en chief, involving B.C. land claims. The trial before the Supreme Court of British Columbia began in 1987 and went on for three years, presided over by Chief Justice Allan McEachern, who refused to accept oral history as evidence, considering it fantasy or hearsay. “They lost every case in those days, but then won at the Supreme Court [of Canada],” Justice Wedge recalled. Chief Justice McEachern’s Delgamuukw decision was overturned in 1997, establishing that Indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral territories had not been extinguished and that oral history evidence must be considered.
Ms. Pinder took the lead in another case involving CN Rail, which ran a train along the Fraser and Thompson rivers, where Indigenous people fished. In 1985, the railway wanted to add another track so trains could run in both directions, until Ms. Pinder obtained an injunction to prevent the construction of the second track, arguing that it would cause irreparable harm to the Aboriginal fisheries.
“The Court said, ‘No construction until First Nations get their chance to prove their case in court,’ said Ms. Ostrove, who was on the legal team. “[Ms. Pinder] was groundbreaking and effective. The double track was never built.”
Ms. Pinder also obtained an injunction in 1989 to stop golf course development on land in the middle of the Kamloops Reserve and restored the land to reserve status.
“[Her Indigenous clients] just loved her. She was still getting letters and gifts from them after she retired in 2006 [to write],” her partner, Justice Wedge, recalled.
In recent years, Ms. Pinder came out of retirement to join the legal team going to the Supreme Court of Canada for the Williams Lake Band. In 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that the band’s village lands, which had been taken by settlers in colonial times, was a valid claim for which compensation is owing.
“The band was so happy she came,” Ms. Ostrove recalled.
While her first two novels Under the House and On Double Tracks were well received and published abroad, her last two, much to Ms. Pinder’s dismay, failed to find a publisher. Bring Me One of Everything (2012), the thinly veiled story of anthropologist Wilson Duff, and The Indulgence (2019), the somewhat overwrought account of a gay actress accused of kidnapping and corrupting a 14-year-old girl, were self-published.
Ms. Pinder leaves her partner, Justice Wedge; five siblings and 12 nieces and nephews.