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Rod Macdonald once tried to promote independent thinking in a group of 300 judges by playing his Gibson Hummingbird guitar and singing a folk song written by Phil Ochs. (Rachel Granofsky)
Rod Macdonald once tried to promote independent thinking in a group of 300 judges by playing his Gibson Hummingbird guitar and singing a folk song written by Phil Ochs. (Rachel Granofsky)


Roderick Macdonald: A mentor to generations of lawyers Add to ...

His influence on the Canadian legal community is woven into its human fabric – the lawyers, judges and academics he taught. “Rod Macdonald was a mentor who helped me develop my interest in helping really vulnerable people,” said Jill Presser, a Toronto defence lawyer who works with people caught between the criminal justice and mental health systems.

His teaching could be unconventional. Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella co-taught a course with him in jurisprudence. In February, she told a symposium in Prof. Macdonald’s honour that he started the first class, set around a seminar table, by asking, “How do you know this is a table?” Two hours of discussion followed on that one question.

Mr. Sandomierski explains Prof. Macdonald’s point: “We shouldn’t take for granted what we perceive reality to be. That’s a very easy thing to say and a very difficult thing to embody when you’re dealing with a legal profession that is so traditional and hung up on the current forms and how things currently exist. He was essentially saying everything is up for grabs. Everything you think law is and should be you actually have within yourself.”

His opposition to dogma and fixed rules had a powerful influence on his students.

“Here was someone who was obviously very influential, well published, very successful, and he was telling you to subvert the perceived wisdom,” Mr. Sandomierski said. “He was able to question the underlying premises of almost every given in our legal system. And do so in a way that was thoroughly consistent with the ideals of the legal system.”

“He wasn’t the kind to join protest marches,” Robert Wolfe, a professor in the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University, said. “It was just always clear where his sympathies lay. Concern for ordinary people. Concern for social justice.”

Prof. Macdonald believed that people create law through their own interactions, and legislators just write it down. In this, he drew on the work of Lon Fuller, a U.S. scholar who might otherwise have seemed his political opposite – he was once a speechwriter for Richard Nixon.

“Very often the best way to achieve a harmonious and peaceful society is to recognize people have the capacity to do what is appropriate under the circumstances and that the law should be designed to facilitate their agency, and not simply to control them,” Prof. Macdonald told CBC Radio host Paul Kennedy this year.

Explaining why he had never given in to pessimism, Prof. Macdonald cited his experience interviewing former residential-school students who had suffered physical and sexual abuse. “Many of them had been broken down terribly by the experience but were optimistic about their lives and their children and the development of their communities,” he told Mr. Kennedy. “And so how can I as a researcher, as a scholar, looking at these terrible events, become a pessimist? If anything, I would be betraying them if I could not translate the same optimism and desire and belief in the possible into the reports we write and the work that I do.”

Four years ago, he was told a bump on his neck was cancerous. The cancer later spread to his lungs and the base of his skull. In February, hundreds of former students and colleagues attended a two-day tribute to him at McGill. The outpouring not only of respect but of love and affection was in return for his life of deep generosity, according to Prof. Wolfe, a friend from his Camp Kandalore days.

At that camp, Prof. Wolfe says, a young Rod Macdonald drove campers in a bus, with a canoe trailer hitched behind it, hundreds of kilometres into northwestern Ontario, and then hundreds of kilometres more down a gravel road, toward their destination. And when his friend asked him why he had done it, he offered a simple reply: “Because I wanted them to have a good trip.”

Prof. Macdonald leaves his wife, Shelley Freeman, and children, Madeleine and Aidan.

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