Skip to main content

Canada Malcolm Rowe: The man behind Trudeau’s pick for Supreme Court

The contest for the Supreme Court job became one in which not only legal qualifications but different kinds of diversity competed with one another for Mr. Trudeau’s attention.

In Malcolm Rowe, nominated to be the first Supreme Court of Canada judge from Newfoundland and Labrador, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has chosen a man with a deep connection to the land, people, culture and politics of his native island.

Although he has worked in the upper reaches of government and the courts, the 63-year-old Appeal Court judge has not led an ivory-tower kind of life.

His story is a common one in the province. His parents were from 400-person fishing villages – his mother from Lamaline on the province's south coast, his father from Seldom, on Fogo Island, off the northeast coast. His father, who was born in 1912, went to school until Grade 6, when his father said he was needed on the family fishing skiff. It was a remote world without electricity or roads. His mother, who is still alive, went to school until Grade 10. Eventually, they moved to St. John's for opportunity.

Story continues below advertisement

From his father, Justice Rowe got his work ethic, according to his younger brother, Derrick. His father worked in a warehouse, and after he reached mandatory retirement, he got a job as a school janitor, and worked into his 70s. Next, he made fishing nets in the basement at home to sell to merchants up until his mid-80s. "He just worked. That's all he ever did," Mr. Rowe said. (Justice Rowe, who faces a public nomination hearing on Tuesday, declined to be interviewed.)

From his mother, who worked in a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, he got his academic bent. His mother's aunt, a woman born in 1866 known as "Nanny White," taught him to read when she was in her 90s. When she died, she left the family her house, and so the two boys grew up in a kind of middle-class comfort, Mr. Rowe said.

"From the moment I opened my eyes, Malcolm read," his brother said. "When he was young, he read everything."

Both brothers (there are no sisters) went on to excel.

Derrick is a leading businessman. He has been the chief executive officer of Fishery Products International, a leading seafood company based in St. John's, and is currently executive chairman of Bluedrop Performance Learning, an e-learning company, and chairman of the board of Tennis Canada.

Malcolm went off to Ottawa, where he became a foreign service officer, an adviser to Conservative justice minister John Crosbie and a lawyer in private practice. A Liberal, Brian Tobin, brought him back home, where he eventually became the head of the province's civil service before being named a judge.

In making such a large leap from their origins, Derrick credits their parents for supporting their choices in life. "It's just an absolute commitment to whatever you want to do, giving you absolute confidence. We were never told what to do, ever. We were always told to do our best and we could achieve anything we want. It just seems like a simple equation. There was never any pressure."

Justice Rowe, who is married and has an adult daughter, a lawyer in Toronto, is driven. Not only in his career, but also in activities he does for fun.

"If he's going to kayak, he studies it; he practises it; he trains; he makes sure he's got the best technique. He will study it to death," said Des Sullivan, a St. John's businessman and former adviser to two premiers. "He never does anything lightly."

Another friend tells a similar story of how Justice Rowe became an accomplished skier. "He didn't just take up skiing. He would research the equipment, buy different equipment, hike to remote locations, ski down and hike back up," said Mark Dobbin, president of Killick Capital in St. John's. "That's a pretty intense way to ski. You get the maximum experience doing it that way."

And Justice Rowe has become so adept as a sailor that, in the summer of 2015, he captained a two-person, 28-foot sloop on a 32-day trip around the entire island province, stopping in 30 coastal communities to meet people along the way – another maximum experience.

"I think Malcolm is a guy who's always challenging himself," said his lone crew member, friend Jim Mitchell, a retired policy consultant and civil servant from Ottawa. "He's a real adventurer, but he's very organized and careful and disciplined."

Mr. Mitchell said he brought along Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a 700-page economic history of the past two centuries, on the trip. He never got around to reading it – but Justice Rowe did.

Story continues below advertisement

Justice Rowe's intense drive explains how he became proficient in French. (Mr. Trudeau made functional bilingualism a requirement for the Supreme Court job.) "He said he was going to learn French," his brother recalled. "Trust me, he's bilingual."

The Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs confirmed in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that he surpasses federal criteria for functional bilingualism. The flip side of his perfectionism may be a tendency to be sharp-tongued with lawyers in his court when they fall short of his expectations.

"He was more than prepared to lend a sympathetic and open ear to an unrepresented litigant," said Geoff Aylward, a lawyer in Paradise, Nfld. "But when it came to lawyers, Justice Rowe could be very forceful and very blunt in his approach, more of the old school, so to speak. If you had a thin skin, Justice Rowe was a person you might not wish to appear before frequently."

From 2002 until this year, Justice Rowe has been a volunteer at Action Canada, a national leadership development program. "My deepest sense of the country came from being in the North, in Nunavut, Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Haida Gwaii and Nunatsiavut (Labrador)," he wrote in his application form, describing his experiences in the program.

Grace Pastine, litigation director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, was one of the young "fellows" mentored by Justice Rowe. "I and all the fellows were really dazzled by the depth of knowledge he has about how government works, about the legal and political history of Canada, and particularly Atlantic Canada," she told The Globe.

The group took a small boat out on a rough sea to visit a remote village in Nunatsiavut, an autonomous Inuit area. "About half the advisers were up top, overcome with sea sickness. Malcolm Rowe was holding court down below, telling us all about the history of Labrador and Newfoundland, the cultural and political history. The fellows were rapt," Ms. Pastine said. "He was an absolute font of knowledge, speaking from no notes whatsoever. He's the type of person who could give a lecture on almost any topic and you would come away feeling like you had just heard from someone who had written a treatise on the subject."

Story continues below advertisement

Ian Binnie, a retired Supreme Court judge, recalled encountering Justice Rowe when he was a senior adviser to Mr. Crosbie, a key Newfoundland and Labrador member of the federal cabinet. Mr. Binnie was then a lawyer. Justice Rowe "organized a Coast Guard helicopter in 1990 and flew with our team of lawyers and experts around the various south coast outports affected by the threatened loss of fisheries in the gulf. We had a series of 'town hall meetings' to explain our case to the local people presided over by Malcolm – he is an amiable Newfie with a courtly manner and a rather perceptive sense of humour and was obviously welcome wherever we went," Mr. Binnie said in an e-mail.

The contest for the Supreme Court job became one in which not only legal qualifications but different kinds of diversity – racial, gender, regional – competed with one another for attention from Mr. Trudeau.

"As I look at my business career and my life," Mr. Dobbin said, "a recurring theme is you need a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints within an organization. Malcolm's experience in government, in law, on the bench and just as a Newfoundlander – that's a diversity that I think is good for the Canadian fabric."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter