RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR
Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry, who
faces mandatory retirement this week, marked
his last day on the job yesterday. He is
seen in his office, before the ceremony in
chambers, with his artwork.
11 years as Ontario chief justice cap respected
legal and political career
2007 04:30 AM
LEGAL AFFAIRS REPORTER
In an era of "three strikes" laws,
when politicians seem keen on giving offenders a
one-way ticket up the river, Ontario Chief Justice
Roy McMurtry knows the value of paddling in a
It's a lesson he absorbed as a young
lawyer in Toronto's criminal courts, when a
probation officer asked him to defend a youth who'd
been in and out of jail since 14.
McMurtry's client became a repeat
customer for the next few years but eventually
straightened out and developed a multi-million
dollar cartage business in the Maritimes.
"You learn not to write anybody
off," McMurtry says.
That may be out of step with current
political thinking. But bucking convention runs deep
in the McMurtry gene pool, judging by the lives of
McMurtry and his three brothers, passionate
overachievers in their fields of medicine, education
McMurtry, the oldest, spent 10 years
as Ontario's attorney general and solicitor general,
weathering firestorms over abortion and gay rights,
while battling racism, setting up legal aid clinics
for the poor and fighting an unpopular battle to
banish hockey violence.
Another chapter ended yesterday,
when McMurtry was "sworn out" after 11 years as
Ontario's chief justice. As lawyers and judges of
the Ontario Court of Appeal crammed into an Osgoode
Hall courtroom for a ceremonial send-off before
McMurtry heard his final case, Justice David Doherty
invoked a different sport, calling him a "Cito
Gaston in robes."
Like the former Toronto Blue Jays
manager, McMurtry, who turns 75 next week, is a
"powerful commander" with a talent for creating a
congenial atmosphere then stepping back and letting
his players shine, Doherty said.
"I am deeply suspicious of anyone
who is well-liked by other people. Consequently,
I've kept a close eye on the chief justice."
It has been an unusual tenure. While
his feet are planted in the establishment, McMurtry
is perhaps the only chief justice to phone up union
leaders to see if they'd be willing to create jobs
in the construction trades for unemployed youths.
He's certainly the first to help establish a
recording studio and employment centre for young
people wanting to pursue hip-hop music careers.
McMurtry found himself doing both as
chair of the Toronto mayor's advisory committee on
community safety, struck in 2004 to combat youth
crime, particularly involving gangs and guns.
Without his influence, the "really
dope" music program wouldn't have stood a chance,
says youth leader and committee member Kehinde Bah.
"Roy is someone who, from the
beginning, wanted to hear what we had to say," said
Bah, 27. "We were in a room full of politicians and
you have this guy who's looking to the youngest
people in the room for what their ideas are."
After a half-century in public life,
there's a reason.
"I think Dad has realized that,
while you can do all these things from the top of
society with the stroke of a pen as attorney general
or more recently as chief justice, I think he really
believes profound change does not happen from
above," said Vancouver teacher Jim McMurtry, the
second eldest of his six children – three boys and
His grandparents drilled into their
four sons the importance not just of succeeding, but
giving back. Jim McMurtry calls his grandmother a
Mother Teresa type.
Her eldest son "is not a saint,"
says former Ontario premier Bill Davis, a lifelong
friend who played on the University of Toronto
football team with McMurtry.
"If you look at his aggressive
nature on the football field, he certainly showed no
sensitivity there to the opposing teams," Davis
says. "He was also quite aggressive in terms of
At the same time, McMurtry's
sensitivity to the downtrodden, his ability to find
the heart of an issue and his interest in people are
key to his success, he says.
"I think the secret is he genuinely
likes people," says McMurtry's son. "I think he
feels the power of relationships and the power
really goes beyond what a relationship will do for
Jim McMurtry says his father also
has a "strong protective" instinct that emerged as a
teenager, when his father Roland, a trial lawyer,
suffered an incapacitating stroke. McMurtry became a
father figure to his three younger brothers, who
were still in elementary school.
"He assumed that role with such
serious import," says Jim McMurtry, who got a taste
of how deeply ingrained that trait was when he
decided to challenge his father's anti-death penalty
views during the 1970s.
He asked his father, who was
lobbying for the abolition of the death penalty,
what he would do if someone killed one of his own
"The response he gave to me was that
he would `get' the person," Jim McMurtry recalls.
"It had no consistency with my dad as a theorist, as
someone against capital punishment. But it showed
the depth of his protective paternal role."
While "even today, I know I could
call up Dad at 4 in the morning and he'd be there
for me," his son also says he thinks McMurtry has
"spent a lifetime underestimating himself as a
father," in part because his years establishing a
law practice and in politics meant long days and
nights away from home.
McMurtry says he never had a career
plan. He thought he would become a teacher and
studied history at university. He became enchanted
with the "romantic" idea of becoming a doctor but
realized two months into his studies that "the
sciences and I were uncomfortable companions." He
was also spending a lot of time on the football
He walked over to Osgoode Hall and
enrolled in law school. There were no admissions
tests back then.
As a lawyer, politician and later
judge, McMurtry found the best way to get results
was to pull people together and help them get beyond
"People like to be consulted and
they like to be encouraged. Like most everything in
life, human relationships are the important thing of
It wasn't always a success. His
attempts to end violence in hockey and charge
players criminally met with stiff opposition from
the National Hockey League. He was also hit with
controversy over Toronto police raids on gay
bathhouses in 1981.
As attorney general and solicitor
general, McMurtry took the heat for a spectacle he
found troubling. More than two decades later, no
longer bound by a duty to uphold the law, McMurtry
headed the appeal court panel that struck down the
ban on same sex marriage.
As a cabinet minister "he was very
much in favour of the enforcement of the law as it
stood," Davis says. " But when he was on the bench,
he was in a position to interpret, along with
others, the law in a way he thought represented the
right approach and the fair approach."
In fact, what gets under McMurtry's
skin are not criticisms of himself – "in politics
you learn to live with that," Davis says. "What
irritates him is when he sees ... discrimination or
abuses of the system."
"Black males being profiled" is one
example, Jim McMurtry says.
For his part, McMurtry says his
biggest letdowns have been personal, not
"If you lose an election, you get
over that. I think my greatest disappointments in
life are that, when you reach a certain age, you
lose so many people close to you."
The recent deaths of his mother and,
particularly his brother, Bill, a Toronto lawyer,
shook him hard, says his son.
McMurtry will stay in the job until
next Thursday, his birthday, mandatory retirement
day for judges. Then he begins a review of the
province's Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. He
may also join a law firm.
"Life for him isn't putting his feet
up and watching a ball game," says his son.
"If he really were to `retire,' I
think life would lose its meaning for him."