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Purdy Crawford, shown in Toronto in 2009, led the high-profile committee that resolved the collapse of Canada’s $32-billion market for non-bank commercial paper.

NATHAN DENETTE/The Canadian Press

It was 1957, and a little-known lawyer named Bertha Wilson – today better known as the first woman on the Supreme Court of Canada – was making the rounds on Bay Street looking for a job.

It wasn't an era when women were warmly embraced in the clubby male world inside Toronto's largest law firms, but she found supporters at the small firm of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, where fellow Dalhousie law school alumnus Purdy Crawford was one of the lawyers who saw her potential and supported her hiring.

Initially Ms. Wilson worked primarily as a researcher at the firm. Over time, she increasingly worked closely with Mr. Crawford on cases, providing a depth of legal expertise as the gregarious Mr. Crawford won business and worked with clients.

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Mr. Crawford later insisted he was not Ms. Wilson's mentor, but rather a colleague who relied heavily on her excellent work. But friends say his support for Ms. Wilson's advancement was characteristic of Mr. Crawford's career, in which he repeatedly became an advocate for people with talent. That included numerous women in decades long before it was common for men to sponsor women's professional careers.

"I often cite [Bertha Wilson] as a female role model, but I say that I would not likely be talking about her at all if she hadn't had a Purdy Crawford giving her an opportunity to use her talents fully," said Alex Johnston, a lawyer and long-time Crawford family friend, who now heads the women's advocacy group Catalyst Canada.

Mr. Crawford, who died in Toronto on Tuesday at age 82 after a long illness, became a pillar of Canada's business community as a corporate lawyer and as a business executive who headed giant conglomerate Imasco Ltd. for a decade from 1985 to 1995.

He was also a reform advocate who headed numerous committees and task forces to deal with crises or spur improvements to business regulations.

Author Gordon Pitts, who has just completed a book about Mr. Crawford's life, said his greatest contribution to Canada was a private role: serving as a personal mentor for generations of young people who now form a who's who of Canada's most influential leaders, including Governor-General David Johnston, Toronto-Dominion Bank chief executive Ed Clark, and former Home Depot Canada chief executive Annette Verschuren.

For most of his life, Mr. Crawford never thought of himself as a mentor, Mr. Pitts said, and the term was not as widely used in bygone decades. Instead, he fell into the role naturally. He had an outgoing personality, loved to remember details of everyone's life, and would generously open doors to help his legions of friends.

"There aren't many people like that, when you look at his influence," said Mr. Pitts, a former Globe and Mail reporter. "And I don't think there is any male business leader who had more to do with the advancement of women than Purdy Crawford. He was a mentor before mentoring was hot – he didn't even know what to call it."

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In 2013, Mr. Crawford received a special recognition award from Catalyst Canada for advancing women on boards of directors.

Deborah Alexander, executive vice-president and general counsel at Bank of Nova Scotia, said Mr. Crawford was her most important mentor as a young lawyer. "He was also so much more," Ms. Alexander said. "He was a friend and a confidante, and much of my personal success is attributable to him."

Harold Purdy Crawford was born on Nov. 7, 1931, in the tiny town of Five Islands, N.S. His mother, Grace, was a divorcée with two sons when she met coal miner Frank Crawford, a widower. They married and later had Purdy, who grew up with two half-brothers and a half-sister.

His mother, who lived to 94, was "formidable," recalled granddaughter Heather Crawford, one of Mr. Crawford's six children. Grace is credited as one of the early influences who helped make him a supporter of women in an era when they were rarely encouraged to succeed in careers or often even pursue higher studies.

He grew up modestly as a coal miner's son, and attended a two-room schoolhouse in Five Islands, later moving to a small, four-room high school. It was there he met Beatrice Corbett, and the couple began dating as high-school sweethearts. They married when he was 20 and she was 18.

Mr. Crawford was completing his undergraduate degree at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., at the time of their wedding, and the couple then moved to Halifax, where he won a scholarship to study law at Dalhousie University. After law school, they moved to Boston, where Mr. Crawford earned a master's degree in law at Harvard University with help from more scholarships.

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He later headed to Toronto to fulfill his ambition to work in a large city. He joined Osler in 1956, became a partner in 1962 and a member of the firm's small executive committee in 1970.

Osler vice-chair Brian Levitt said Mr. Crawford helped to transform the firm, which was small at the time and had a limited scope of work. (Others more bluntly say Osler was a stodgy 100-year-old bastion for old-money Toronto elites when Mr. Crawford first arrived in the mid-1950s.)

Mr. Crawford advocated for a more open hiring culture at the firm, and shifted focus into new areas of law, Mr. Levitt said. In the 1960s, Mr. Crawford served as counsel to the Kimber committee, which developed an Ontario Securities Act that became the foundation for securities law in Canada today.

Mr. Levitt said Mr. Crawford's experience in helping to shape the province's securities helped him garner the knowledge and contacts to push Osler deeper into the realm of securities law.

"It got us into the capital markets and [mergers and acquisition] business," Mr. Levitt said. "And he had a real eye for talent – he simultaneously built the firm's capacity and built its talent base."

Mr. Crawford's work on the Kimber committee was just the beginning of a long series of projects involving public policy reforms. Over the years, he served on numerous panels, including a huge project in 2003 to develop updates to Ontario's securities laws, as well as a task force to propose a new model for a national securities regulator in Canada in 2005.

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Perhaps most prominently, Mr. Crawford agreed in 2007 to head the high-profile committee working to resolve the collapse of Canada's $32-billion market for non-bank commercial paper, which threatened to leave many large institutions with huge losses. After months of tortuous negotiations, he helped persuade a host of truculent parties to accept a settlement and receive new restructured notes.

Lawyer Stephen Halperin, who worked with Mr. Crawford on the restructuring, said his partner was most proud of the fact the committee recovered full restitution for smaller retail investors.

"He was mindful of the small investors – mindful that they didn't have a seat at the table and mindful that his role was to represent them as much as the big institutions," Mr. Halperin said.

Mr. Crawford was also "incredibly smart and incredibly strategic" at seeing the big picture, and recognizing the public policy issues at play, Mr. Halperin said.

"You don't often get role models when you are 57 or 58. He was a role model for me," he added.

Mr. Crawford interrupted his law career for a decade, from 1985 to 1995, when he was offered the opportunity to head conglomerate Imasco, which at the time controlled a host of major Canadian companies, including Canada Trust in the era before its sale to Toronto-Dominion Bank; as well as Imperial Tobacco and Shoppers Drug Mart.

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While the job allowed him to shape the future of a stable of Canadian companies, he also faced long-term difficulties with Imperial Tobacco.

Critics excoriated the company and its executives for selling tobacco in an era when it was becoming an increasingly socially shameful commodity, and Mr. Crawford later had to watch the legal aftermath that stemmed from a widespread industry practice of smuggling cigarettes into Canada to avoid high taxes and boost corporate taxes.

Long after Mr. Crawford had departed and Imasco was broken up, Imperial Tobacco announced a settlement in 2008 with federal and provincial governments to pay a $200-million fine for smuggling activities in the 1980s and 1990s. All other major Canadian tobacco companies faced similar penalties, and Mr. Crawford never spoke publicly about the legal issues.

Outside of work, he spent his holidays at his family compound on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, and remained committed to promoting business and education causes in Atlantic Canada.

He made large donations to Maritime universities, especially to his alma mater, Mount Allison, where he has helped finance construction of the new Purdy Crawford Centre for the Arts.

David Wheeler, president of Cape Breton University, where Mr. Crawford helped fund aboriginal business studies, said he was made an honorary chief of the Membertou First Nation and given the name Rising Tide in appreciation for his commitment to the community.

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"He would joke that he was still searching for his twin, Chief Ebbing Tide," Mr.Wheeler recalls.

Mr. Crawford's daughter Heather said her father appreciated the honour so much that the family named his new vacation home on the Bay of Fundy "Rising Tide."

"It signifies that [Membertou] position, and also the fact that we really felt our father raised all ships, as the tide does. Whether in the business community or at home, his presence raised us all," she said.

In addition to Beatrice, his wife of 63 years, Mr. Crawford leaves six children: Suzanne, Heather, Mary, David, Barbara and Sarah; and 17 grandchildren.

With files from reporters Boyd Erman, Tara Perkins and Jane Taber

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