Skip to main content

Several years after he sentenced Steven Truscott to death in 1959, an Ontario judge lobbied then justice minister Pierre Trudeau to prosecute author Isabel LeBourdais, who dared to claim that Mr. Truscott was innocent, a series of aging letters obtained by The Globe and Mail reveal.

The letters from Mr. Justice Ronald Ferguson of the Supreme Court of Ontario include several sent to Ontario Attorney-General A.A. Wishart, exhorting him to have Ms. LeBourdais charged for her audacity in whipping up a worldwide furor.

Published in 1966, Ms. LeBourdais's exposé of the Truscott trial precipitated an unprecedented storm of media and public protest against the conviction and death sentence meted out to Mr. Truscott, who was 14 at the time.

In one of his fevered letters to Mr. Wishart, Judge Ferguson remarked that the Truscott controversy "has disturbed the emotions of everyone in Canada and even beyond Canada throughout the Anglo-Saxon world. She has caused more fuss than did the trial of Adolph Beck or Dreyfus."

And in a June 5, 1967, letter to Mr. Trudeau, he argued: "The Truscott affair has been disposed of by the Supreme Court, but the campaign of vilification of the courts still goes on.

"The book written by Mrs. LeBourdais, The Trial of Steven Truscott, which is at the bottom of the fuss and turmoil and the attack on the administration of justice was, in my opinion, a thoroughly dishonest piece of writing, and I regard it as my duty to draw the matter to your attention and to say that in my view, she ought to be prosecuted for public mischief."

The letters provide a fascinating window into the institutional forces that have weighed against Mr. Truscott in his 48-year battle to reopen his case and have his conviction overturned.

Mr. Truscott's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he spent 10 years behind bars before being released on parole. He went on to raise a family in Guelph, and live under an assumed name. In 2001, he came forward to seek a formal review of his conviction.

The final stage of that marathon battle resumes today, when the Ontario Court of Appeal commences the last stage of an extensive review of his case. A five-judge panel will decide whether to leave Mr. Truscott's conviction intact, order a retrial or acquit him outright.

Mr. Truscott's current defence team intends to argue that the Crown and police withheld critical evidence from his previous lawyers, and that Judge Ferguson presided over a trial that was inherently unfair to Mr. Truscott.

While Mr. Trudeau's response to Judge Ferguson is unknown, a June 9, 1967, memorandum written by federal deputy justice minister D.H. Christie described Ms. LeBourdais's book as "dishonest." Mr. Christie went on to say that while he fully sympathized with Judge Ferguson's extreme annoyance, it would be inadvisable to pursue criminal charges against the author.

In a July 11, 1967, letter to Attorney-General Wishart, Judge Ferguson briefly left off his attacks on Ms. LeBourdais and turned his sights on well-known journalist and writer Pierre Berton. He took sharp exception to Mr. Berton having described Mr. Truscott's trial on a radio broadcast as "a mockery of justice."

In yet another letter to Mr. Wishart, Judge Ferguson enclosed editorials from The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star which he felt had unfairly disparaged the fairness of the Truscott trial. The judge also complained bitterly about Ms. LeBourdais's appearance on a CBC program, This Hour has Seven Days, where she had denounced Judge Ferguson for committing "shocking" mistakes during the trial.

After receiving several such letters from Judge Ferguson, Mr. Wishart wrote back on July 11, 1967, to try to assuage his anger. Mr. Wishart noted that an unprecedented Supreme Court of Canada reference case held late the previous year had effectively stilled the controversy with its conclusion that the Truscott conviction was sound.

"We did consider the question of any possible action that might be taken against any persons who had unwarrantedly published comment and criticism during the course of this proceeding, but at the present time, it is our intention not to proceed with charges," Mr. Wishart said.

Ms. LeBourdais was never charged or prosecuted for her detailed and passionately written work of investigative journalism.