Skip to main content

Adrienne Clarkson is the co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. She was Canada's 26th governor-general from 1999-2005. The following was adapted from her tribute speech Thursday night.

I had known about Beverley McLachlin ever since she had been appointed to the Supreme Court by prime minister Brian Mulroney. Then John Ralston Saul had met her at the Canadian Bar Association meeting in the summer of 1999 where they both spoke. He described her to me as "the most beautiful disguise for a steel trap mind that he'd ever seen." So, I was properly prepared when I met her. I was not disappointed.

Rarely does public life bring you into intimate contact with people for whom you instantly feel great personal affinity. And in my case, a sharing of a generation's strivings in the second wave of feminism. It's not easy to be a woman in public life in Canada. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and I, having been governor-general, have shared different kinds of travails, but we know what sharing means and we know what sisterhood means. Yes, I use that rather dated and old-fashioned word because I think it is really what I have found with her.

There are many reasons the country should be grateful to her, but I want you to know that one of the most interesting facts about her is that I am sure that she is the only Chief Justice we have ever had who knows how to deliver a calf. I don't think there is anything more revealing than going to Pincher Creek – which I have done – and seeing that beautiful little town nestled in the foothills of Alberta and to enter through the roadway that is now called Bev McLachlin Drive. I think that Bev McLachlin Drive really says a lot. It says that she comes from there. It says that she is known to everyone there. And it says that she is one of us.

In my years at Rideau Hall, I found that the Chief Justice was a tremendous support and an often hilarious and ironic commentator on public and private events. She never revealed secrets to me, but I revealed lots to her. I knew that I could take her into my confidence at every step.

What you've always been able to do, my dear Chief Justice, is to make us understand as Canadians that the Supreme Court is not only a superbly important Canadian institution, but it has a dramatic impact on all of our lives. It is a guarantor of our democratic process. You in your 28 years on the Court have embodied this.

Beverley McLachlin is able to put herself in others' shoes. She knows that law is not a mechanical cipher that is simply stamped to order through what has been done before.

I believe that we are in a period of what some scholars call "evolutionary democracy" and that in our parliament system we must pay attention to the public's right to be informed. This Chief Justice understands that law is an organic entity, or, "the living tree," which grows and evolves with the evolution of societal views. This Chief Justice knows that courts can justify the making of substantial changes to the law if in doing so they reflect clear changes in social values.

It is a wonderful thing to have had a woman as our Chief Justice for 18 years. Women of our generation were grateful to find a place in the hierarchy of power and often we don't understand that gender discrimination still shapes our work lives. I think Beverley McLachlin has understood it, interiorized it, acted upon it and has helped to make it irrelevant.

On the other hand, she has made it possible for all women to feel that they could aspire to be like her. She defines equality by living it.

Even before she became Chief Justice in 1997 - when her predecessor Antonio Lamer was Chief Justice - she contributed to the judgment that has perhaps had one of the greatest influences on our relationship to the Indigenous peoples than any other. It's the case commonly known as Delgamuukw, which recognized the validity of oral evidence of Indigenous peoples and establishes the test for Aboriginal title as continuous exclusive occupation from pre-Confederation times.

This was followed by a series of historic decisions over the past 20 years in which the court, led by its Chief Justice, showed all of us the way to restore our relationship with the Indigenous peoples, through justice. Chief Justice McLachlin has since been noted in other judgments and in speeches that range from her enlightened and once-controversial comments about the cultural genocide of the Indigenous peoples to the rulings of the Court that show that she understands the Indigenous basis of our country from the inside out.

The respect for the Court which she has brought about under her tenure is nothing short of remarkable.

She's very good at getting consensus and her Court has handed down more rulings than past courts that are signed "by the Court" – rather than any one judge – to emphasize unanimity and to provide legal clarity. The "by the Court" decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada have happened more than a dozen times: The Robert Latimer case; the same-sex marriage reference in 2004; and the 2010 decision on Omar Khadr. We all know about these judgments, and they are important ones for us as Canadians, and they were important to have been "by the Court."

We regard the Supreme Court with respect, and respect for our institutions is one of the most important attitudes one must have in a democracy. If any of our institutions – be it Parliament, or the courts — become agencies which we ignore, deride, or disdain, we are in deep trouble as a democracy.

Our Chief Justice has broken any number of records and we know that she has done her work and she has done it well. In her work and in her life, she has shown what it is to understand each other in a human and lawful way. She has helped us as Canadians understand the parameters within which we live. And in our treasured Supreme Court, she has led us all to learn the limits that human understanding can bring to human behaviour.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau considered Richard Wagner’s bilingualism when appointing the 60-year-old as the Supreme Court of Canada’s next chief justice.

The Canadian Press