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May 9, 2023

Beverley McLachlin: Full Disclosure

Beverley is not retiring. Beverley McLachlin was told in grade 8 that she wasn’t very alert. That she probably wouldn’t amount to much. Ha! She went on to become the chief justice of our Supreme Court, the first woman in that role. All justices are told to step down at 75, so she has now taken up writing thriller novels. Oh, and a bit of lawyering. You should hear what she says about the Notorious RBG , and what might have happened to the “Bev” bra.

Beverley McLachlin was born and raised in Pincher Creek, Alberta. She was chief justice of the Supreme Court, and has now written a thriller: “Full Disclosure”, and a memoir: “Truth be Told, My Journey Through Life and the Law”.

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Voiceover  0:02  
The Women of ill repute with your hosts Wendy messily and Maureen Holloway.

Wendy Mesley  0:07  
Maureen, what do you call a Supreme Court judge?

Maureen Holloway  0:10  
This sounds like a joke. Yeah. Okay. I'll bite whatever she likes early in the morning, Beverly.

Wendy Mesley  0:17  
Yeah. Beverly, in this case, you can also go with Justice McLaughlin, or Madame justice. Or if they're the Chief Justice, you go with the right honorable.

Maureen Holloway  0:28  
How on earth do we justify having somebody who stands for truth and honor and justice as a woman of ill repute? Well,

Wendy Mesley  0:35  
Beverly McLaughlin, she says she's a character and she wasn't born a judge. In fact, growing up on a ranch in pincher Creek, Alberta, she was told, I think it was a great teacher that her career prospects didn't look so hot

Maureen Holloway  0:47  
that she was she was told she wasn't alert enough great reading skills, but not alert enough. But somehow she paid enough attention to get to university, and then law school where there were practically no women at the time.

Wendy Mesley  1:00  
Yeah, well, she was dealing with rampant sexism, which of course, as we know, is all been resolved. It's all gone now. Yeah, I think you tweeted the me to movement, like wrapped up everything and everything. Yeah. She got lots of appointments, Supreme Court in British Columbia, the BC court of appeal than the Supreme Court of Canada. And then that design, Chief Justice, she was like the first woman to serve in that position, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I remember so well.

Maureen Holloway  1:27  
Well, while she was on the Supreme Court, Justice McLaughlin presided over landmark decisions regarding same sex marriage assisted death. He also spoke out quite loudly and controversially about Canada's treatment of our indigenous people.

Wendy Mesley  1:42  
Yeah, so many big issues. It's I'm really looking forward to talking about all of this, of course, she had to retire at 75. But she's not really retired. So now she sits on the court of final appeal in Hong Kong, which has been a little controversial. She wrote a memoir a few years ago called Truth be told, and she went on to be a best seller and won all kinds of awards. And she's taken to writing legal thrillers, which are they're also bestsellers Of course, they are. Yeah.

Maureen Holloway  2:12  
She's met with kings and queens presidents and of course Prime Minister's she became a Companion of the Order of Canada and She almost had abroad named after her

Wendy Mesley  2:21  
bra really bra Yeah. She Yes, the lobby honors I think I'd rather like have a bridge or a rocker like anything else and abroad, we have kind of weird ways of honoring our heroes, but and then there was a grade eight teacher who basically said she never amounted to much. I want to hear a little bit more about that.

Maureen Holloway  2:47  
Let's find out very warm and awestruck. Welcome to our guest this week. The Right Honourable Madame justice Beverly McLaughlin. Hi, Beverly. Hi.

Beverley McLachlin  2:56  
Hello. It's nice to call you Beth. Yes, please. Is that okay? Yes.

Wendy Mesley  3:00  
Okay. We're an art we don't have to say a former Right Honorable Oh, just

Beverley McLachlin  3:04  
just call me bad.

Wendy Mesley  3:08  
Okay, we will you I was amazed to read that you sort of your first stripes. Well, after being told that you never amounted to anything as a woman, that you dreamed of being a writer that you were a journalist and you learned all kinds of things. And now you're still writing?

Beverley McLachlin  3:21  
Yeah, I think writing is what's carried me through life. I love writing. I've always loved words and books and ideas. And writing is what's carried me through different iterations. I briefly tried journalism, when I was a lawyer, especially a young lawyer, but also later on for its writing was an essential part of our work. I mean, writing is an essential part of a lawyer's work, you have to write your briefs, you have to write your various documents, but you have to end when you're a judge, you have to write judgments, and that they are perhaps not literary works of writing, but they are important pieces of writing and you know, after know how to put them together and how to organize them that and how to convey your thoughts through words. So wherever I've been writing has been central, I think to what I do,

Maureen Holloway  4:13  
I wonder if being a novelist, which you are now, does this help you say anything that you would want to say about the law that you couldn't or wouldn't say as Chief Justice?

Beverley McLachlin  4:25  
Yeah, well, you can say it in different ways. I like in my novels to take on certain legal issues. And I'm able to take them on from not the point of view of a jurist sitting above, but I take them on from the point of view of the people they affect, and maybe the people who have different views about them. Like my second novel was about the right to assistance in dying and through different protagonists. I had one who thought this was an essential, basic human right, but there was another protagonist, the prosecutor who said, No, this is the slippery slope to euthanasia. This is terrible. And we cannot have this. So you're able to put forward different points of view and you don't necessarily have to resolve them. When I was a judge, I had to resolve them. I'd say, Okay, this is the right answer. But you don't in a novel, you can, and you so your reader can explore the different points of view and make their own mind up.

Wendy Mesley  5:20  
So why don't you just retire? I mean, mandatory retirement 75. And now you've got like five jobs like, Yeah, I do a lot. Are you? Are you supposed to retire?

Beverley McLachlin  5:31  
Well, I you know, as I said, in my autobiography, I think retirement is a transitive verb you go, you retired to something or from something. And so I still felt healthy and active. And, you know, there's a lot of hours in the day, and you've got to put things in them. And life is about what you put in them. And a to me, I do like things other than I like, cooking night, I enjoy walking in the woods, I love my cottage. Those things are important, but they weren't enough to fill all those hours in a day with things that I thought were meaningful. So, and interesting. I mean, you're going to be interested in life, don't you? You want to have things that you're thinking about that, that you're care about. And you don't just want to suddenly become a spectator and wither away. And I've saw, so I kept doing things that were interesting.

Wendy Mesley  6:27  
Yeah, remember, when you were on the court, you were? Well, when you were first appointed as chief justice, that you wrote that you'd seen the health Senate stop their health of the people who had been there before you and it was a pretty hard job. And yet, like we look at pictures of you, when you were when you were sworn in and when you're retired, you look like a million bucks. Like, are you? Like, what, it's not the bra?

Maureen Holloway  6:52  
We should, we should explain. I think that's so hilarious that in order to honor you and other women that are in Canadian history, I think Simon's that offered to name a bra after you I think it was the Beverly brela.

Beverley McLachlin  7:07  
Somebody in their publicity department got the idea that this would be a great feminist advertisement. So they got people like Flora MacDonald, and a lot of other distinguished Canadians, I was the only one alive. So that was a distinction unless they had forgotten, but anyway, they named a bra, they produced a bra and named it for for each of these women. And mine was very diminutive. Of course, you know, I'm not particularly endowed in those regions. So I took that as a compliment, of course, but it can really when you think about it, it was pretty over the top. And I was in Europe, and I read about this, and our rather, former law clerk, a wonderful lady named Katie Black, who now has her own practice in Ottawa, doing very well. She, she emailed me and she said, Are you aware this? And I said, No. And I no more I thought, at first, I was gonna laugh it off. And I said, No, this is really, really serious. I mean, on a number of levels, first of all, you don't just get to use a person's name alive person's name to promote your products. That's, that's without their permission. And But secondly, I was just sort of deeply offended that it might trivialize that. Yeah, the memory of all these wonderful women, me excluded, but you know, and no one was there to speak for them. They were dead and gone. And, and the last note, you know, that comes out about them, if you look on social media is that there's a bra name for them and people laugh, that it can't be right and it would never do it for a man you know, no, carry Alia Trudeau jockeys, no. And, and, and so I said to Katie, contact them and their lawyer and tell them that if they don't do the right thing, they're going to have a law action on their hands. So basically, I have to say, and this is where it's happy Simon's did the right thing. They realized that this was just egregious. And they wrote a letter of apology, which was printed in a lot of papers, they withdrew the line of bras. And and Mr. Simons himself insisted on voting me personally to apologise which I thought was wonderful, wonderful of him. But part of the condition of, of this incipient litigation that I said I had threatened was that they would have to do something for the cause of women. So they put up a very, very generous gift to support housing for women and and children who were without homes in Ottawa and contributed great deal to a nice nice nice Nice Psalm to an effort that was going on, which helped give give women and children who would otherwise not have had homes, a roof over their head. So it all ended well.

Wendy Mesley  10:11  
You write a lot about women, and I'm just wondering is, you know, like I am and marine, we're both sort of women of our times. And now there are other issues, thank goodness that we're focusing on on things other than the horrible things that happened to women. But it was was a big deal for you. Like there was that teacher that said, You're never going to make a deal if you want to be a secretary. Fine. But even they don't expect that to be much more. Yeah. And then all the way through, like, becoming the first woman, Chief Justice and so on. You just write so much about, about women. And I'm just wondering, like, where are you now? Where are we now? Well,

Beverley McLachlin  10:50  
it's very interesting to watch how society has regarded women I'm almost at now. So you know, I've been watching since I was a little girl, right? And, and watching different phases, when I was very young women, it was the post war era. And women were housewives and mothers with the occasional stands for some doing things like secretarial work, teaching, nursing, etc, which was always considered secondary, not a really, real career, although some women made real careers out of it. And they were very much disadvantaged in property, they were very much still in 100, small ways, considered almost a chattels of their husbands or fathers before that, there was some sort of a dowry, right in property in Alberta where I grew up, but you know, the man who owned the property, the man made the decisions, and that was accepted as right and, and proper. And I never could understand that. I just had a basic brain block, couldn't get it. I just couldn't get it. And even when I was a little girl, and then, you know, it was very much the same sort of attitude, as I was growing up in high school, but you didn't see more women who are doing interesting things gradually coming out of the woodwork, but still these constraints. And then there was I got into law, just before there was a big revolution in the mid 70s, you know, Betty Friedan, then the feminine mystique and all that said, What is wrong with a society that just assumes that 50 point something percent of it is always going to be at home, looking after children? Why can't women explore their talents and desires and abilities in as many different ways as men can. And that was a revolutionary book at the time was the late 60s, early 70s. And it and people read it and people were wrenched out of their complacence. And suddenly, in the mid 70s, we saw many women, almost a third of the law schools, were a classes were made up of women. So women started really saying, I'm going to get education, I'm going to get into different jobs, I'm going to do things. So that was the enabling, enabling kind of moment that really propelled me along. And then we went through various other phases of feminist development. There's, you know, all the stages of the feminist theory. But in the most recent was the me too, which I think was really, really important. Because there had Still, despite all the advances, advances made from Betty Friedan on been this culture of silence. You didn't, you didn't talk about certain things. And it was so deep and you know, the culture of silence is really the culture of enslavement, in sense if you want to, if you want to keep a group down, you just don't let them talk. And

Wendy Mesley  13:57  
so interesting, like Robin Doolittle, who writes for The Globe and Mail just did this huge piece saying that, yes, there's been a lot of change, but women are still not making anywhere near the money that that men are making. So it's, it's it's still there. I mean, oh, yeah, we have a revote of me to

Beverley McLachlin  14:13  
a new chapter, the final challenge, and will we ever get there? I don't know. But economic equity, social equity, more or less. You can't see too many barriers, but economic equity, there are a lot of barriers still. And then they're subtle barriers. They're not like you can't do this. And then it's written out in big red banners. It's just like, you won't be chosen for a promotion, or you won't be asked to serve in a certain position. Are our maybe because of society expects you to be the primary child caregiver. You won't be able to take on this other job. up. So social conditions and social assumptions are now holding women back. Will we ever get to do that? I don't know. I don't know. But we're not through it yet.

Wendy Mesley  15:12  
Did that teacher ever apologize that that grade eight teacher said you never make it did did was

Beverley McLachlin  15:19  
she even remembered it a day later. But, but I do. Remember going back to my little hometown and meeting, a lovely teacher I had thought of her was as strict. She was my grade one teacher. And I was terrified of her. But when I saw her, I realized she was just this lovely little old lady. And she said, and you know, she did she, my brothers and I were all very bright. And but we were just treated like everybody else. And no assumptions were made. But and sometimes, rd is put down, et cetera. But she came to me and she said, I really have been thinking about this over the years. So we didn't realize how to treat bright kids in this little school that we had. And, and, and there was nothing for them. And we just assumed everybody was somehow going to get through and get through in the same way. And we didn't give you what you could have had to really, really flourish like and and I never felt at my school because we had lots of time to read lots of time to daydream. And especially in my high school years, they introduced us to a lot of different things, literature, science, it was it was it was a pretty good all round. Plus we got everything we got from our community, which is about how you had to pitch in and work and get along with people. And you know, that's really, really important too, and what a community amounts to.

Voiceover  16:46  
The women of ill repute

Maureen Holloway  16:49  
when you wrote your memoir, truth be told, which you know, in Beverly McLaughlin style went on to win awards wasn't just your average memoir, you obviously had an opportunity to take the step back and have a big scope on what you have accomplished. And I'm wondering, when you were instrumental, you presided over decisions about same sex marriage and about euthanasia. But I wonder what, you know, looking back what you think, was perhaps the most meaningful decision that you made as a as a as a judge as a justice?

Beverley McLachlin  17:21  
You know, I can't give you an answer to that. That's the honest truth, because they're meaningful for you at one level, or the meaningful society, how's that question parsed out? But I can tell you that I really got invested in a indigenous issues. I mean, nowadays, when people say the Supreme Court in my era didn't go far enough, but we went from zero to 75, let's say, and that's pretty good. And other courts are building on that now. And we were able to lay down a basic structure, legal structure within which indigenous people could advance their claims. And that was hugely important. Was it perfect structure all this? Probably not, but and it but that's the beauty of the Lord, things can be changed and tweaked about, it was extremely important to recognize those rights when nobody else was recognizing them, the parliament, legislatures nothing. So in in desperation, really, they turn to the courts. And the courts recognize those rights and built up a legal structure in which they could be preserved and litigated. And that was so so important. And that's, you know, as a sidelight, that's one of the beauties of a diverse democracy, you have different institutions through which people can work. Now this another area, I thought was really important was the constitutional area. I've always loved constitutional law and charter law. And I was lucky enough to have the charter as my companion right through my judicial career, I first became a trial judge in 81. And the charter came in in 82. So there, I was watching it's probably development until 2018, almost when I when I stepped down very late in 17. And

Wendy Mesley  19:04  
I just heard of that, can I just go back to what you were talking about in terms of indigenous rights, and, and how, basically, when you were there, the court went from zero to 75. And reading your memoir, I mean, you talk about, about there being, you know, indigenous communities right nearby where you grew up, and you could never understand why they were treated so differently. And, and you say, what took us so long? I mean, I know you say that you were taught that, that Canadian history was all white Europeans and their descendants and there's like, no, there's barely a mention of indigenous people. It was you say it was like that it was like that for me to growing up. And I just, I don't know whether, like, are we actually are we getting somewhere else? I mean, it's the same question, I guess is about women. But no, I think are you still sad for your society?

Beverley McLachlin  19:54  
No. Well, I think we are getting somewhere finally. And we are acknowledging that Our total history, we could do better. You know, there are other problems with history as I was being taught it, it was all. I remember spending a whole year in Alberta, rural Alberta, Alberta had a rich Hidden History of its own, learning about the St. Lawrence Seaway. Well, I'd never seen it, I never expected to see it. But that was what I had to learn. I think we need to make history relevant to to our society and teach what it is all about. And including, and most importantly, going not blacking out whole areas, like we did a eons and eons of indigenous history. And so now we're realizing that and and I hope that our I know, our schools are doing a lot better. They almost every curriculum in every province has an indigenous component. Now, this is so important, we need to know about each other. We don't, we can't move ahead if we live in isolated segregated circles, which was the case when I was growing up with with indigenous people. I was some

Wendy Mesley  21:04  
really struck by a part of your book where you you talked about your first husband, Rory, how he got mouth cancer and died. And he really suffered. And I and I think I think you're fairly clear that that was a big influence for you in the whole made process of like, he wanted morphine. And you were like, I'm a judge. I can't, I can't kill you. I can't murder you. But the law. So sometimes the law makes needs changing. Yeah. Yeah. So I just can you I, it's a very personal thing. Obviously, you're your first husband, but but some people want to die and need help.

Beverley McLachlin  21:41  
Yeah, dying is part of life. And we're seeing people pay more attention to it. Now. It's not just like a footnote to life, it's part of life. And people. My observation is long to die with dignity. They, they don't have to necessarily control everything, but they want to die with a modicum of dignity. And nobody likes suffering, and nobody likes pain, and dying in that state. The it can be a very demeaning experience. Anyway, all that to say, there, as we know, is a widespread movement now that, that provided the circumstances are right. And of course, they have to be very narrow. And people should be allowed to choose how they, how they die, and avoid this suffering, avoid the indignity and to go well, and you know, one of the things that judges and ex judges don't get fan mail, but I more than almost any other area I work in, I run into people socially, or some of them even send me letters. And and this has meant a lot to people who want to choose and avail themselves of assisted suicide, it meant a lot to family members, and allowed people to have this liberty and control to the to in the final stages of their, of their human existence. So it's touch a lot of lives. And and I don't think it's being abused. I haven't heard of any cases. Of course, that would be terrible. I think it's, it's, it's a profoundly important thing.

Maureen Holloway  23:25  
Is what I'm pondering this, it's hard to move on from that. But as a novelist now, now you're a lady novelist, and you have a protagonist. I wonder how much of you is in? It isn't really true. It's totally true. It isn't. Yeah.

Beverley McLachlin  23:41  
Yeah. Well, I tried to make her very different. And I was never doing that kind of law in that way. And, and I wasn't the kind of girl or had the kind of background she did. But so there's nothing direct. I tried to imagine my characters as more from people I've known than my own. I don't write auto fiction, that's for darn sure. And I don't think I ever will unless you call my memoir that but I don't. I try. I I've known so many interesting people in my life and met them through the courts and observed them here and there. And I just take pieces and I put them together. That's how that's how I do it. That sense. Some of the attitudes obviously, come from inside me. I mean, all this stuff comes from inside me and my memories, and my protagonist has a certain aggressiveness. She's not going to take a second seat. She's not going to stand back if she sees something bad happened. I mean, maybe I had that maybe not to the same degree. But and she also has an empathy for those who are suffering and those who have suffered in justices. And she takes things on and she gets passionate about it and she gets them done. That was never my modus operandi, but it always ended Miers people who get that kind of thing out there? So maybe in an extension of myself in some abstract way?

Wendy Mesley  25:10  
Are you this is a very, very rude question, but what do you think of RBG? The Notorious RBG. Like she became so famous, I think you met her. There's all this controversy, like, why didn't she step aside earlier? And now look what's happened. And anyway, I just I just wonder, could you ever be jealous of RBG? No,

Beverley McLachlin  25:30  
no, no, I'm not. I'm not. But she did achieve icon status. And that's wonderful. She deserved it. And she was always very modest with it. I don't think she sought it out much, or tried to overplay. But she was just a truly dignified and exemplary person who, who cared very deeply about about the law and the position of women in the law. The only time I was briefly jealous somebody, a woman, I know a law professor wrote a book about RBG. And she said, Oh, I've included you in it. This was just a few months ago, I'm going to send you a copy. So I waited for the copy. And I looked at when to the index, I looked at the page where I was included in it. And it said the Chief Justice of Canada and RBG was invited to a dinner of course, nobody paid any attention to the Chief Joseph, Canada, it was all I thought, well, you could have spared me that I didn't remember that anything is being quite so totally dominated by RPG. But I loved her and I met her on many occasions. And and she was wonderful woman.

Wendy Mesley  26:44  
You just need to be more notorious. I know.

Beverley McLachlin  26:49  
I maybe I've stifled that I mean, one one fellow started putting out at about the time I retired. But now I'm, I'm no longer very interesting to people. But the he was going to do a lot of T shirts. And I just said, I wrote him and said, Don't do this, please, you don't have my permission. I just put a bra and see yourself in on somebody's back. And what are you doing? You know, are you really promoting justice at that point? And I'm not suggesting that RBTs fame was anything she manufactured or wanted. But if it is that that kind of pop culture thing, never appealed to me greatly. So I'm not sure it really promotes the idea of justice so much as the individual which individuals who injustice people like me who worked in it all my life were just very small pieces of a very large institution.

Maureen Holloway  27:51  
Well, in terms of pop culture, your latest book is denial. And it is a novel and it is a rip snorter of a page turner. And I mean, is there anything you can't do? I guess we could end with that. Is there anything that you wish he could do that you can't? Do? I be a ballet dancer or something.

Beverley McLachlin  28:08  
I'd love to be a ballet dancer. I'd love to have been a wonderful musician. But those are things I can't I can't do and are just the beginning of a list a million things long, because I've always looked at things like oh, wouldn't it be wonderful to do that? But yeah, there are limits. I've pushed mine.

Maureen Holloway  28:27  
Well, you're still pushing them. And I know we have that conversation a lot about running out of runway. But I still think you have a lot ahead of you. And and it's been a pleasure talking to you, Madame justice.

Beverley McLachlin  28:39  
Thank you. It's been lovely.

Wendy Mesley  28:44  
Yeah, lovely. That's one of the best parts of these podcasts is you sort of get to meet people that you'd never meet in real life. So and to have more than a 10 minute conversation, which is what I used to have on the news. And lovely Wendy

Beverley McLachlin  28:56  
and marine. There you are.

Maureen Holloway  28:59  
Oh, well, thank you so much.

Wendy Mesley  29:00  
Yeah, well, I was in Ottawa when you arrived. It was it was a pretty heavy time with you know, the brand new charter and all of the Dying with Dignity stuff and the same sex marriage was a lot of stuff. And you were there. Yeah. For all of it. So yeah. Well, for that part of it. Anyway, it's been lovely to talk to you.

Beverley McLachlin  29:18  
Nice to talk to you.

Maureen Holloway  29:19  
Thank you, Beth.

Beverley McLachlin  29:21  
Thanks so much. Bye. Well,

Maureen Holloway  29:26  
there she goes. Probably the most accomplished person will ever meet.

Wendy Mesley  29:28  
Yeah, I didn't get to ask her about that. But I mean, she goes into detail about memories when she was two years old. I mean, I can barely remember being newer, let alone two. So there are some people who are gifted to go on forever and never retired seems which is

Maureen Holloway  29:44  
quite interesting. Yes. This is this brings this whole conversation into why should anybody retire? Why? Yeah, yeah. Well, and she's tired or you want to do other things or you're no longer interested in what you're doing? Sure. That's fun. I get that. But if you're contributing and Cognos she is why would that discussion and it's funny we have this conversation we had it with Maryland Dennis with you know what, what is this thing where Okay, you've had a good run you should step away now

Wendy Mesley  30:13  
you just you're done you're 60 or 70 You're so you're all done now well in some people aren't done it was it was fascinating because she talked a lot in her memoir and we didn't talk about it in our chat with her but about her son and about it's it's hard to be a woman who accomplished it. It's like memory Henan saying, you know you you've got to have a supportive husband, you've got to have a system if you want, you can't have everything and something's going to hurt. And and and she says in your book that there's no such thing as perfection and that her her son ultimately figured it out. Like I'm sure that there were moments that were difficult as there are all child rearing and parental relationships but she pushed ahead and she she she did a lot and she's still doing a lot she's still a thriller. So do you think do you think she figured it out

well, I'm just trying to be honest, no, I didn't read the thriller but I can hear you think it's okay, you know, I did read her memoir I find I find what she did was was so important. I'm just not a no you're not you're not

Maureen Holloway  31:21  
you're not a big you're not a big detective fiction person. I know that I know. But I do. So she was

Wendy Mesley  31:26  
great. She's She's contributed so much so except for the bra. Lovely to talk to you. Next time bye.

Voiceover  31:38  
The Women of ill repute was written and produced by Maureen Holloway and Wendy messily, with the help from the team at the soundoff media company and producer Jet Belgraver.