Former Ontario chief justice Gregory Evans dies at 96

Remembered as ‘man on a mission’ who opened doors for the wrongly convicted

Tracey Tyler Legal Affairs Report

Gregory Evans changed Canada’s justice system by taking the bold step of exposing a wrongful conviction.

But the working life of the former chief justice and Ontario integrity commissioner began in the smoke-filled bar of a Timmins hotel, slinging beer at ten cents a glass.

Economic necessity inspired Evans, in early August, 1934, to board an overnight train in his home town of McAdam, New Brunswick, five miles from the Maine border, and head to northern Ontario, where he landed a job in his uncle’s Lady Laurier hotel.

“His story was that he developed this habit of liking to have three square meals a day,” said Evans’ son, Greg, an Orillia lawyer. As the elder Evans would later tell it, two years in the hotel’s beverage room, surrounded by prostitutes, miners and bootleggers, was an education no university could provide.

Evans died in Orillia Sunday at 96. During his long life, the father of nine was a defence lawyer, a trial judge, a member of the Ontario Court of Appeal and, from 1976 to 1985, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ontario.

His most enduring contribution to the justice system was arguably his work as part of the three-member royal commission that investigated the wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall Jr., who spent 11 years in prison for a 1971 murder he didn’t commit.

In their 1989 report – the first Canadian examination of a miscarriage of justice – Evans and co-commissioners Alex Hickman and Lawrence Poitras concluded Nova Scotia’s justice system failed Marshall “at virtually every turn” and his conviction resulted in part from racism.

Evans later conducted a one-man inquiry that led to a substantial increase in compensation to Marshall, a Mi’kmaq who was originally awarded $270,000 by the Nova Scotia government.

“I think he ended up playing an absolutely vital role in the administration of justice in all of Canada because of the Marshall inquiry,” said James Lockyer, a founder of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.

“He and his fellow commissioners were the first to unlock the door to an acknowledgement of a wrongful conviction in this country.”

Evans was so committed to the issue that when the association was formed in 1993, he agreed to serve as its honorary chairperson, a rather radical move for a former chief justice, given the organization was battling the legal establishment.

He was a “charming” man who always put people at ease but he had an independent streak, said Win Wahrer, director of client services for the association.

In his nineties, he insisted on taking the subway downtown for meetings. And while he had stopped driving in winter, he recently got his license plate renewed for two years.

“He was always a man on a mission,” said his son Greg, “and he just did not accept the fact he was aging.”