New Brunswick

Supreme Court of Canada chief justice hears final case, fights back tears

Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin fought back tears Thursday as she said goodbye after serving nearly three decades on the country's highest court.

Beverley McLachlin, first woman to hold top post, retires after 28 years

Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin took a moment to compose herself Thursday, her final day on the bench before retiring. (CBC)

Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin fought back tears Thursday as she said goodbye after serving nearly three decades on the country's highest court.

"Whatever lies ahead, I know that my time here will always be the centrepiece of my life," she said.

​McLachlin, 73, announced her retirement in June, but Thursday's hearing about the cross-border beer case of a New Brunswick man was her final day on the bench.

She received a standing ovation.

"It's been intellectually stimulating, it's been hugely challenging, and there's not been a day when I haven't thought, 'I am the luckiest of people,'" she said.

"It has been, as they say vernacularly, a terrific ride."

McLachlin was sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in 1989 and became the first woman to hold the top post when she was appointed in 2000.

She said she was grateful for her "good fortune" of serving during a period when Canadian law has "grown so greatly."

"Don't get your hopes up respondents, that's a general statement," she quipped to Gerard Comeau's lawyers, prompting laughter in the packed Ottawa courtroom.

Comeau's lawyers are urging the court to strike down interprovincial trade barriers that led to his being nabbed by police for bringing 14 cases of cheap beer and other alcohol home from Quebec, which could have far-reaching implications.

The court has reserved decision to an undetermined date. McLachlin officially retires on Dec. 15, but will continue to weigh in on cases she has heard until next summer. A successor has not yet been named.

'Tireless protector and promoter'

Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella offered a heartfelt and playful tribute to the retiring chief justice following Thursday's hearing. (CBC)

At the end of the two-day hearing, Justice Rosalie Abella asked her fellow justices, lawyers and observers in the public gallery to take their minds "away from the price of beer" and to think about "the pricelessness" of the retiring McLachlin.

"Chief justice, your colleagues have put their thoughts together and we have come up with some reasons to support our conclusion that you have been a spectacular chief justice," said Abella.

"Don't worry, we're unanimous," she quickly added, triggering another wave of laughter.

"Who is Bev McLachlin?" asked Abella. "Let's do a contextual and purposive analysis of her pith and substance, consistent with international law, comparative law, the rule of law, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, having regard to the Constitutional architecture and unwritten principles at play in a free and democratic society, and subject to a reasonably correct standard of review — notwithstanding Section 121 of the British North America Act," she said, another witticism, referring to the law at issue in the Comeau case.

Comeau's trial judge acquitted him in 2016 for violating the personal importation limits of the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act, which he deemed unconstitutional because Section 121 of the Constitution Act states products from any province "shall … be admitted free into each of the other provinces."

New Brunswick's attorney general wants the Supreme Court of Canada to overturn the judge's decision.

'Seemed incapable of fatigue'

McLachlin has heard more than 2,000 appeals during her tenure, dealing with everything from Aboriginal and family law, to tort and criminal law, the courtroom heard.

And with every area of law McLachlin has helped "move forward, she has brought it closer to the public," said Abella.

"An increasing number of people have been able to understand the law belongs to them," she said, noting McLachlin's "supreme passion" is access to justice.

McLachlin's work went "far beyond the courtroom," completely redefining the role of chief justice, said Abella.

She has been everything from "jurist extraordinaire … to judicial educator in chief as head of the National Judicial Institute, to judicial cheerleader of great Canadians in chief as head of the Order of Canada, and to judicial chief of the judicial chiefs as head of the Canadian Judicial Council.

You have presided over the court and the Canadian judiciary with  great wisdom, integrity and grace.- Owen Rees, lawyer

"Under her leadership, the court's reputation resonated nationally and internationally and attracted unprecedented public confidence and respect," Abella said during her heartfelt and playful tribute.

"She was, in other words, also our judicial ambassador in chief — a tireless protector and promoter of the institution, inside and outside it, unflappably diplomatic inside and outside, and uniquely wise everywhere.

"We don't know how she did it. She seemed incapable of fatigue."

Owen Rees, speaking on behalf of all counsel present, told McLachlin she has "personified justice" throughout her "remarkable career."

"You have presided over the court and the Canadian judiciary with  great wisdom, integrity and grace," he said. "We are profoundly grateful to you for your service.

"Know that you enjoy our deep respect and affection."

Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin received a standing ovation Thursday after hearing arguments on the New Brunswick cross-border beer case of Gerard Comeau. (CBC)

McLachlin joked she had almost reached the point of challenging the credibility of some of the "much too generous" comments.

"But on this particular occasion, I'm prepared to accept the most credulous statements."

She said she leaves with "great sadness" and will miss the the people and the work tremendously — even the late nights of "homework."

"In fact, that may be the biggest adjustment I have to face — what am I going to do with my evenings?"

She thanked her husband for making it possible and her son, who was only 13 when she joined the Supreme Court of Canada and "put up with mom as a judge."

She also thanked the public for their support.

"We expect criticism, we often get it, and that's good in a democracy," she said.

"But what I have always felt is that the Canadian public generally supports its justice system and supports this court. And for that, I am enormously grateful."

McLachlin, who was born in Alberta, is Canada's longest-serving chief justice.

Her judicial career began in 1981 when she was appointed to the Vancouver County Court. Five months later, she was appointed to the Supreme Court of British Columbia. She was elevated to the British Columbia Court of Appeal in 1985 and appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 1988 before joining the high court.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said her judicial accomplishments are "unparalleled" in Canadian history.

The Liberal government announced a new appointments process last year with the creation of an advisory board chaired by former prime minister Kim Campbell.

In announcing the changes, Trudeau said any qualified Canadian lawyer or judge who is functionally bilingual and "representative of the diversity of our great country" can apply for the top court.