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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)
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)


Purdy Crawford was the firm hand on Canada’s business tiller Add to ...

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.

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.

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.

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.

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