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Former United Nations human rights commissioner Louise Arbour talks to students during their first day of classes at Louise Arbour Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario September 07 2010. Her activities at the school included a meeting with the staff and attending an assembly in the afternoon. Arbour was a judge on the Supreme Court of Canada and a chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

At 67, after an extraordinary, globe-hopping career, Louise Arbour has come home to Montreal after working outside of Quebec since 1971. Once again, she is setting out to do something she has never done before – she has joined a law firm.

She has been a Supreme Court judge, an international prosecutor of war crimes and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. But the toughest challenge Ms. Arbour says she ever faced came at the very beginning, when as a young Québécois law student she moved to Ontario, first to be a law clerk at the Supreme Court in Ottawa, and then, a law professor in Toronto.

On the occasion of joining Borden Ladner Gervais as counsel, she spoke to The Globe and Mail's Sean Fine about her craving for learning, why she left the Supreme Court of Canada after just five years and her advice for young people.

Q: What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome to succeed in your career?

Ms. Arbour: When I look back, the biggest move for me was to move from Quebec to Ontario. I went to be a law clerk in the Supreme Court of Canada when I barely spoke English. Everything after that was a repetition of the same kind of effort to understand. Within a couple of years I was teaching at Osgoode Hall Law School. It's pretty obvious with hindsight that I crave the environment where there's a lot of figuring out how it all works.

Q: We take those moves for granted now. Why was that first move to Ontario so challenging?

Ms. Arbour: I'd never studied in English in my life. I went to a classical college and then to law school, all in French. Osgoode Hall Law School, coming from Quebec in those days, was like Harvard: this huge, impressive English-speaking common-law establishment. I had a civil law degree; I spoke French. And of course, these were at the times of intense nationalist if not separatist aspirations in Quebec. Nowadays, the country has become much more bilingual and more fluid. When I look back at my law school [University of Montreal], I don't think anybody else left. Maybe one or two went to New York. It was very bold. In retrospect, it allowed me to find comfort and even attraction in novelty, challenge, stepping into things for which I was not particularly well-qualified.

Q: That's a rare characteristic. Where did it come from?

Ms. Arbour: I have no idea. You are talking to someone who is enormously not introspectful. I have very little insight and not a great deal of interest in analyzing my inner drive.

Q: After so many years away, what are your thoughts and emotions on returning home to Quebec?

Ms. Arbour: Coming home is everything I had hoped for. A very happy move with a tinge of nostalgia for my friends close by, in Toronto for example, and far away. Sorry, I'm not so good on emotions.

Q: What was the main skill that all these tough, diverse jobs of yours demanded?

Ms. Arbour: The ability to think from first principles and not to get lost in the details. I led a team of prosecutors from the United States, Denmark, Italy. They came from different legal systems. The U.S. guys who mastered the federal rules of evidence were often the ones that you had to shake from the details of the rules and say – think of this unique environment in which we are operating.

Q: What was the Supreme Court ruling you wrote that you're proudest of?

Ms. Arbour: There's a convention when you leave the court that you don't comment on your judgments or the work of others. I think maybe the one that stayed in my mind was a dissent I wrote in Gosselin in Quebec on the right to welfare. It was my first introduction really to economic and social rights and their alleged absence from the framework of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It was very novel, very challenging.

Q: Why do you say the alleged absence of social and economic rights?

Ms. Arbour: I wrote in Gosselin that Section 7, the right to life, liberty and security of the person, is the foundation of all rights. Not only civil and political rights but also economic, social and cultural rights. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they're all united. It's only after the Cold War and the 70s that there was a big fracture where the West embraced civil liberties, civil and political rights, and developing countries, China and Russia purported to prefer social and economic rights – the right to health, the right to education. I came to the conclusion that these rights are there, if you read the Charter in the full spirit and the full heritage on which it is built. Obviously this was not the prevailing view and still isn't, I think.

Q: Why did you leave the Supreme Court of Canada after just five years?

Ms. Arbour: I got a call from Kofi Annan to whom I originally I said no. I told him I can't, I have a lifetime assignment. And then three months later I accepted. It would have never occurred to me to leave the Supreme Court except for something that was a once in a lifetime opportunity to go back into a system that at least I understood better than when I went the first time. Under the leadership of someone I knew would support me. I was quite young, I had many years ahead [on the Supreme Court] but it was in keeping with other things I've done.

Q: Who were the biggest influences on your career?

Ms. Arbour: There were not a lot of people I would identify with, i.e. women. My law professors were all men. My early colleagues at the law school and on the bench were all men. It's hard for me to think of them as mentors, although it's very clear that it's a series of men, for the most part, who were very supportive. A couple of my law professors – some are dead now – at the University of Montreal. Harry Arthurs, who was the dean at Osgoode – why on earth he offered me a job to this day completely baffles me. Charley Dubin [former chief justice of Ontario]. William Parker, who was chief justice of the high court. I was maybe the third woman on the court, French-speaking, not even Franco-Ontarien. Antonio Lamer, the chief justice of Canada, had been my criminal law professor. Kofi Annan. I've developed a lot of women friends, mostly peers, younger women, law clerks, former students, people I've worked with internationally. There's not a person who stands out as my beacon.

Q: Which one of your jobs did you enjoy most?

Ms. Arbour: I loved them all. I never left a job because I was bored or didn't like the environment. In my judicial career, the Court of Appeal for Ontario was a dream environment. It was a very collegial court, a very strong court, on criminal law which interested me and on commercial matters, with people like Syd Robins and Allan Goodman. There was a pace of work that is faster than the Supreme Court. I liked the trial work as well. I was only a trial judge for a couple of years. When the call comes and they ask you to go the Court of Appeal – in a sense I wished they had called a couple of years later. I was just starting to get it, to preside at jury trials. It was immensely rewarding.

When the dust all settles, I think the work I did as an international prosecutor was probably the best combination of theory, getting the principles right, and then strategic work – it was very operational which was not like anything I've really done before. And of course it was anchored in all kinds of politics. It was a witches brew of all kinds of fascinating things. But under conditions that I wouldn't wish on anybody. In a sense, it's not real. You can't do that forever, especially in the early days when the whole thing was very precarious and experimental.

Q: You spoke up publicly against the PQ government's proposed charter of values limiting religious symbols in the public service last year. Why did you decide to enter the debate?

Ms. Arbour: I was coming back home, in a sense, and this was a pretty fundamental issue on which as a citizen I thought I was certainly entitled to an opinion. It was really important to me, the kind of climate to which I was returning. And frankly, I was just appalled at the tone and the content of the voices supporting this charter.

Q: What is the number-one human rights issue in the world today?

Ms. Arbour: As a human rights lawyer the instinct is to say all rights are equal, there is no hierarchy of rights. Still, inequality captures not just the whole umbrella of discrimination but also economic disparities that are unjustifiable on any terms, between countries and within countries.

Q: Speaking to law students, or any audience of young people, what would you say is the lesson of your success?

Ms. Arbour: If I were talking to law students, I would say to them, because it was such a revelation to me, particularly when I became a trial judge: it's all about the facts. If you get the facts straight so many things follow quite naturally. And yet the ascertainment of historical facts – by historical, I mean, something that happened yesterday – big events, small events – is an extremely difficult enterprise, even in an era where we're supposed to know everything. To young people, I think I would say, do not be discouraged because you can not pick every good fight. But pick a few.

Q: What are you going to do as counsel at Borden Ladner Gervais?

Ms. Arbour: It's very early. We'll see what's ahead for both of us, for the firm and for me. This is a firm I've known through its litigation work for many years. I could contribute on some of their litigation files, some of their arbitration issues. I have some of my own work that I will carry on doing, which for me will be much more useful to do it in a professional environment than in total isolation. I'm a member of something called the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and the Global commission on the Death Penalty – prior commitments. The most important one, the one that persuaded me that I would be much more comfortable working back in a law firm – I've been appointed an ad hoc judge of the International Court of Justice in a case between Bolivia and Chile. I'm only sitting on that one case. It's just a lot easier for me to work not in total isolation.

Bolivia is suing Chile alleging an obligation on the part of Chile to negotiate their access to the Pacific Ocean. The court has 17 permanent members. But when there is a case between countries that don't have one of their nationals on the court, each country can nominate a judge to sit ad hoc. I was nominated by Chile.

Q: Any chance you'll write your memoirs?

Ms. Arbour: The past doesn't really interest me very much. The future interests me. The present is top of the list. I'm always intensely engaged in what I'm doing and I'm very forward-looking. It would be so laborious for me to try to dig in, particularly if I had any pretense of being accurate. I have actually given every scrap of paper, every photo, everything I own to the national archives, and good luck, my friend, if you ever wanted to dig into that. I have enormous admiration for historians and journalists. That's not me.

Career highlights


Served as law clerk for Justice Louis-Philippe Pigeon, Supreme Court of Canada


Worked as researcher for Law Reform Commission


Taught at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School


Appointed judge on Ontario High Court


Appointed judge on Ontario Court of Appeal


Appointed single Commissioner for inquiry into the Prison for Women in Kingston


Appointed by UN Security Council as chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda


Appointed judge of the Supreme Court of Canada


Appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


Served as president and chief executive officer of International Crisis Group


Counsel for Borden Ladner Gervais law firm, Montreal


Mother of three adult children and grandmother of three

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