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tom hawthorn

David Vickers has been called the best premier British Columbia never had, high praise for a reluctant politician.

Mr. Vickers, 75, died early Saturday morning at Victoria Hospice. The former B.C. Supreme Court judge had been diagnosed earlier this year with cancer of the pancreas.

His reputation for possessing a sharp legal mind, his empathy for society's less fortunate, and his own family's story, in which education made it possible for the son of a working-class family to achieve success at law, hinted at the possibility of a sterling political career. It never happened.

A defeat at the polls in 1986, two years after an unsuccessful bid to become provincial NDP leader, led Mr. Vickers to return to the practice of law, where he was known as an effective advocate for the rights of the mentally disabled.

This passionate cause found expression after the birth of his third daughter, Pamela. On the insistence of her parents, she became the first student with Down syndrome to be integrated in the province's public school system. She received a certificate from Oak Bay High not long before dying of a congenital heart condition in 1990.

Mr. Vickers spent 17 years as a justice of the B.C. Supreme Court.

Two years ago this month, he issued a landmark, 473-page decision, in which he ruled that the Tsilhqot'in native band had established aboriginal title to a large portion of their traditional territory.

The ruling was hailed as a victory by lawyers for the band, although the judge's ruling was non-binding. After a trial lasting 339 days, he urged all parties to negotiate in the land-claim case.

"Trials in a courtroom have the inevitable downside of producing winners and losers," the judge wrote. "My hope is that this judgment will shine new light on the path of reconciliation that lies ahead."

The decision is under appeal.

Appointed to the bench in 1991, the judge earned headlines two years later with an extraordinarily wide-ranging publication ban in a court case.

"A court's decree somewhere in Canada on Tuesday prevents the public from hearing about a certain court case," this newspaper reported on the front page. "The Globe and Mail is not permitted to reveal where the case is being heard, what the case is about or who and what is involved."

The gag order was overturned, and the public learned that it was issued in the case of a controversial stock promoter who was seeking to prevent the CBC from reporting on a drug conviction he had earned in the United States as a youth. The judge later acknowledged he had erred in granting so broad a ban.

In 1973, Mr. Vickers was named deputy attorney-general in NDP premier Dave Barrett's government. He served for four years.

In 1984, he contested the NDP leadership when Mr. Barrett stepped down after his third successive defeat at the polls. Opponents called Mr. Vickers a Johnny-come-lately to the party. A rival camp whispered that he had represented management in a bitter labour dispute 18 years earlier.

Bob Skelly, an MLA who was the first choice of few delegates, triumphed over Mr. Vickers on the fifth ballot of a memorably cantankerous convention. In the subsequent provincial campaign, Mr. Skelly proved to be a jittery campaigner, and the Social Credit, by then under the charismatic leadership of Bill Vander Zalm, cruised to victory. Mr. Vickers finished fourth in the dual-member riding of Saanich and the Islands.

The bruising nature of electoral politics left Mr. Vickers cold, as he felt that such distractions only delayed efforts to forge social justice.

In 1990, he was stabbed as he helped protect a female client from a knife-wielding man in a Vancouver courtroom. Mr. Vickers needed 28 stitches to close his wound.

His earlier advocacy, coupled with his knowledge about life with mental illness made sentencing such people troubling for the judge.

"For me that was the most difficult part of the job, the sentencing, because of the lack of resources, the lack of attention paid to individual needs of the person you are sentencing," he told the Globe's Justine Hunter earlier this year.

"How does this government justify the construction of a new jail when those social programs are not being addressed?"

He retired from the bench at the start of the year, after almost a half-century in the law. He joined the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, an issue he hoped to help tackle in his retirement.

Those efforts ended with the unexpected and sudden deterioration of his health.

David Herbert Vickers was born on Oct. 14, 1934, at Montreal, where he grew up in the Rosemont neighbourhood. He was the son of the former Ivy Jessie Tyler, a secretary, and Herbert Vickers, a labourer and boilermaker at the Canadian Pacific Railway's Angus Workshop. Both parents had come to Canada from England as children.

Mr. Vickers graduated from the High School for Boys, where he was class valedictorian.

By coincidence, his future wife, Patricia Goddard, graduated as valedictorian of the High School for Girls the same year. They had not yet started to date, although they had known each other since age 13.

Mr. Vickers completed an arts degree at Sir George Williams College (now Concordia University) before marrying Miss Goddard in 1956. The couple worked briefly at a summer camp in Ontario before embarking on a cross-country trek to Vancouver. He began studying at law school at the University of British Columbia, while she took a job as a probation officer.

Mr. Vickers graduated with a law degree in 1959, winning a $25 prize for proficiency in a course on mortgages. He was called to the bar the next year.

He articled with Ladner Downs, a prominent firm, later becoming a partner.

He opened his own law practice in Victoria in 1979.

Mr. Vickers leaves Pat Vickers, his wife of 53 years; two daughters, Cheryl and Janice Vickers; a son, Clifford Vickers; and four grandchildren and an adopted granddaughter. He also leaves a brother and a sister. He was predeceased by a daughter, Pamela, who died in 1990, aged 20.

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