Joseph Arvay, a lawyer who helped bring about sweeping legal changes to Canada, including same-sex marriage and the right to a medically assisted death, through decades of passionate courtroom advocacy, died on Monday at 71.
Connie Addario, his wife, said he had a heart attack.
In the British Columbia lawyer’s most famous case, known as Carter v. Canada, on the right to an assisted death, Mr. Arvay, a paraplegic, rolled up to the Supreme Court lectern in his wheelchair six years ago. Organizations representing disabled people had argued that a change to the law would devalue vulnerable lives. Mr. Arvay addressed pointed remarks to those groups: “I would be the very last person to ever suggest that one is ‘better off dead’ than being disabled.” The court ruled unanimously that people who were suffering intolerably and irremediably had a right to control their passage into death.
Lawyer Bryant Mackey was on the other side that day, representing the Attorney-General of British Columbia. In an interview on Monday night, he said Mr. Arvay had an “amazingly gifted touch” in constitutional advocacy, and described his contribution to the law as “monumental.” (Mr. Arvay appeared in as many as 78 cases at the Supreme Court, according to a search of the website on which the court publishes its judgments.)
“The court system tends to be reflexively conservative for all the right reasons,” said Mr. Mackey, now a lawyer for the Vancouver Police Department. “Joe’s contribution was really to move the constitutional law of Canada forward in an intelligent way without seeming to uproot it from its moorings.”
He added: “It’s a crushingly sad day here in Vancouver.”
Paul Champ, a human-rights lawyer in Ottawa, called Mr. Arvay “Canada’s greatest constitutional litigator, if not its greatest litigator, period.”
Other cases in which Mr. Arvay represented the person challenging a law, or groups intervening to help persuade courts to strike down a law, include one that brought an end to indefinite solitary confinement in federal prisons in the past year. He also argued for a community group’s right to run a supervised-injection facility (the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favour of the Insite facility, in 2011); the 2013 case known as Bedford, in which the court unanimously struck down prostitution laws; the same-sex marriage reference in 2004, which helped pave the way for marriage equality; and the Little Sisters case in 2000, in which the court ruled Canada Customs unfairly targeted a gay and lesbian bookstore.
He didn’t win every time. This fall, he represented youth activists challenging Canada’s climate-change policies in Federal Court. The judge threw the case out. Next month, he was to have appeared in a three-week appeal, via Zoom, of a major victory he won in an Indigenous rights case in Northern Ontario, fought over an 1850 treaty.
Mr. Arvay, originally from Welland, Ont., became a paraplegic in a skiing accident in 1969, Ms. Addario said. Then a law student at the University of Western Ontario, he completed his studies for the year from Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, before going on to finish his studies at Harvard, she said.
“Joe had a life force – I imagine it’s hard to separate what came first. Did the accident make him that kind of indefatigable trailblazer?” Ms. Addario said in an interview on Monday night. “Things can go one way or the other when people suffer that degree of trauma. I think he turned it to the good.”
She said it informed his advocacy of social justice. “He started on a very cellular level to understand the experience of being disenfranchised, disadvantaged, discriminated against, pitied – all those things.”
He taught at the University of Windsor’s law school before coming west in 1981 when he joined the B.C. Attorney-General’s department, before setting up a private law practice.
Mr. Arvay didn’t shy away from adventure. In the 1990s, he sailed his boat from B.C. to Alaska and back, said Murray Rankin, B.C.’s Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation Minister, a long-time friend and colleague. And he skied at Whistler. “He was fun. He partied hard. He was by no means a shrinking violet. Even though he was in a wheelchair, he would be the first one on the dance floor at parties.”
He added: “We’ve lost a champion of social justice.”
B.C. Attorney-General David Eby said he was hard pressed to think of a B.C. lawyer who had not been inspired by the work of Joe Arvay.
“He was selfless with his time on cases of major national importance, just giving hours and hours of work for free – cases that would have never made it to the Supreme Court of Canada without his generosity and commitment to rights and freedoms in the country,” Mr. Eby said in an interview.
He said he worries about the cases that will not receive attention now.
“It’s probably rare that anyone facing a rights issue in British Columbia and contemplating a lawyer they would like to hire didn’t think of Joe.”
Lawyer Craig Jones, who teaches at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, said Mr. Arvay was a mentor to two generations of lawyers.
“None of us is going to be a shadow of what he did,” Mr. Jones said. “I am just gutted. I have been sobbing all day.”
Mr. Arvay was Mr. Jones’s lawyer in 1997 at the inquiry into RCMP conduct at the APEC summit in Vancouver that year, where Mr. Jones was detained for holding signs reading “Democracy” and “Free speech.”
Apart from his wife of 20 years, Mr. Arvay leaves the five children of their blended family: Louigi, Hannah, Carmen and Gina Addario-Berry, and Emily Arvay. He also leaves six grandchildren: Solomon, Francesca, June, Caspar, Zoe and Oliver. And he leaves his sisters, Mary Jane Cruise and Jeanne Pender.
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