In this telling memoir, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, speaks freely about her life and some of the events than impacted it on her climb to the top of Canada’s judicial community. Hailing from the small community of Pincher Creek, Alberta, Beverley Gietz was a highly intelligent girl, though her teachers were never sure she’d accomplish much outside of the traditional roles for women. The eldest child, Beverley paved the way for her siblings and admired her hard-working parents as they tried the best they could on their small ranch. Taking a gamble, Gietz was able to win a spot to the University of Alberta, where she immersed herself in philosophy and dabbled in journalism, enjoying her ability to explore the innermost thoughts of the mind, while expressing herself with the written word. Her university breaks allowed her to return to southern Alberta, where a few suitors awaited her, but none caught her eye as much as Rory McLachlin, who was a farmhand and academic in his own right. Their relationship blossomed and Rory challenged Beverley to consider studying law. She did and thus paved the way to bigger and better things.
After telling of some interesting goings-on in mid-1960s law school, Beverley and Rory’s relationship grew and they soon married, though their lives did not become any less hectic. McLachlin tells of trying to break into the legal world in the late 1960s, a time when sexism was rampant and women were still new to the ‘clubhouse’. Working as hard as she ever had, McLachlin impressed her male counterparts and rose in the firm at which she worked, all of which helped a young lawyer find a niche in ensuring everyone received equal treatment. When Rory’s life took him to smaller communities in northern British Columbia, Beverley followed him, their connection strengthened by not needing to commute. Eventually, their lives led them to Vancouver, as Beverley scored work at the University of British Columbia’s Law School, honing some of her skills in a position she loved. The birth of her son, Angus, helped her to see life through new eyes and she comments throughout about being a less than stellar parent, even though she had amazing parents who offered many tools. Juggling parenthood and a career, McLachlin was surprised when she was called to accept a seat on the bench, beginning a storied career as a judge. She shares a few of her memories, including seeing things from other perspectives when seated above the fray. Other promotions came, many of which were shocking and highly sought-after positions, though Rory’s health was beginning to deteriorate. His passing would shock the close-knit McLachlin family and gave some sobering of where the law fit into the larger picture. While she did seek some time to get her head on straight, McLachlin found her rhythm again, working the docket until she received a call from the prime minister, seeking her to accept a position on the Supreme Court of Canada.
This move is surely one of the most coveted positions in Canada’s legal community. McLachlin accepted it and flourished, learning the ropes alongside six men and two other women, crawling through the shards of the glass ceiling that had been smashed years before. The memoir not only details the move to Ottawa, across the country from her Vancouver home, but also the highly political nature of the cases that came before her. She discusses themes that arose and how aspects of Canada’s constitution handled them, including some of her own thoughts on these issues. Angus was settling in nicely and McLachlin was able to find new love in a man who respected her position and did not feel threatened. McLachlin found her niche and thrived as she heard cases and became accustomed to the importance of the work. A final call from the prime minister sought her to fill the role of Chief Justice, the first woman to do so. She accepted and became not only a strong administrator, but a stellar legal ambassador for the entire Canadian legal community. McLachlin lets the reader in to see some of the work behind the curtain, but always keeps things professional and does not spill secrets relating the other justices. This, her final legal job ever, allowed McLachlin to end her career shaping and helping those who needed it most. By the time ‘Citizen McLachlin’ emerged, Canada was a much different place and she was happy with its transformation.
While the idea of a legal memoir might seem dry to some, Beverley McLachlin’s writing and storytelling is anything but academic or stale. She recounts her story in such a way that any reader can understand her roots and witness the climb throughout the legal community. Her passion throughout appears to be those whose voices are not heard and she fought diligently to press for equality and representation. Women’s rights were only one of a number of causes, doing so within the parameters of the law while finding new and innovative ways to break age-old views in a country that was still learning to live independently in its legal nuances. McLachlin personalises the anecdotes she offers, tying them into both her own experiences and offering some needed backstories to provide context for the reader. She was of the people and not above them, as her position on the bench might leave some to surmise. While I loved the easy to digest delivery of the memoir throughout, I felt it lacked some meat during her legal career. I wanted to hear more about the cases she argued—and heard—as well as the constitutional impact they had on Canada. I wanted to hear of the scuffles and the arguments, as well as the clashing legal opinions between McLachlin and her fellow justices. She admits that the Supreme Court of Canada is surely not as political as that of the United States, but there are sure to be some exciting stories as the rights and freedoms of the people of this great land are forged. Perhaps I have read too many memoirs of American judges or expected added drama, but I can see how McLachlin might want to dilute the legal rhetoric to appeal to a larger reading base. With easy to read chapters and a flowing narrative, McLachlin makes her life one that can easily be understood and admired, allowing anyone who picks up this book to discover the wonders of the Canadian legal system and how a farm girl in rural Alberta can rise to become the most powerful legal entity. Anyone can do it, with a little hard work and the support of those around them.
Kudos, Madam Former Chief Justice (what is the proper title?!) McLachlin, for this stellar piece of work. I learned so very much and am grateful for all you did throughout your career. I loved your piece of fiction as well and hope you’ll have some time to write as you enjoy a much-deserved rest.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons