Passion: it’s the word used most often by friends and colleagues to describe Antonio Lamer.
“It was the way he lived; he had a passion for law, a passion for
life, a passion for people,” says Ottawa lawyer Eugene Meehan of Lamer,
the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who died last
week in the capital at age 74.
A private memorial ceremony by invitation only was to be held today
at the Supreme Court. Lamer reportedly suffered from a prolonged
illness and recurring heart problems over the last few years.
Remembered by friends and colleagues for not only his passion for
law, but his defence of the independence of the judiciary, Lamer served
on the Supreme Court for nearly 20 years and as chief justice for 10.
He heard 1,317 cases and wrote reasons in 345, before his retirement in
When Lamer announced he was stepping down, he noted that as chief
justice, one must always maintain the “sacré feu,” or sacred fire,
recalls Meehan, Lamer’s first executive legal officer at the Supreme
Court. Lamer wanted to make sure that he left his role as chief justice
while he still had that fire.
“A bright shining star in Canada’s legal universe that has fallen to earth with dignity, grace, and poise,” he notes.
Though retired, over the last several years Lamer was involved in a
number of significant endeavours. In addition to joining the Ottawa
office of Stikeman Elliott LLP in 2000, he was named as head of the
2003 commission of inquiry into three wrongful convictions in
Newfoundland and Labrador, on which he reported and made a number of
recommendations last year.
“This was a massive task, because they were really like three
separate royal commissions,” says Ed Ratushny, a professor at the
University of Ottawa faculty of law who was senior counsel advisory at
the commission and worked with Lamer at various points in his career.
During the commission, Ratushny says he spent a lot of time with
Lamer travelling back and forth and had the chance not only to talk
about legal work but to reminisce about days gone by, which he says was
a very unique opportunity.
Lamer was also named commissioner of the Communications Security
Establishment in 2003 and led a five year independent review of the
National Defence Act that same year.
“He was a very passionate person and believed strongly in the
pursuit of justice; he devoted his whole life to it and I guess that
didn’t stop when he retired from the Supreme Court,” says Ontario Court
of Appeal Justice Robert Sharpe.
“If he turned his mind to computers, he would be Bill Gates, if he
were a road, he would be the Trans-Canada Highway. If he sang, he would
be Luciano Pavarotti and Celine Dion combined. And if he were a judge,
he would be chief justice of Canada, but then again, he was,” says
Amongst the bar, the former chief justice was seen as practical, pugnacious, and principled, he adds.
Sharpe, executive legal officer of the Supreme Court from 1988 to 1990,
describes Lamer as a strong leader with a no-nonsense approach, who
defended the judiciary and was sophisticated to appear in front of as
Included among Lamer’s numerous notable Supreme Court judgments,
according to those who knew him, are the 1985 Re. B.C. Motor Vehicle
Act case, which Sharpe notes was really the first time the Supreme
Court indicated that judicial review would be substantial as well as
While it was authored by the court and not Lamer specifically,
Sharpe describes the 1998 Quebec Secession reference, in which the
court ruled that the province had no right under the Constitution or
under international law to secede unilaterally, but the rest of Canada
would be required to negotiate if a majority of Quebec’s population
voted in favour of separating in a referendum, as “clearly one of the
most important cases the Supreme Court has ever decided.”
The 1997 Remuneration of Judges of Prov. Court of P.E.I. reference
and Independence and Impartiality of Judges of the Prov. Court of
P.E.I. reference had significance, notes Ratushny, as at that time,
there were battles between governments and judiciaries over salaries.
In Lamer’s judgment, he devised the approach that salaries be
determined by independent commissions, which Ratushny notes “put a
layer in between the judiciary and the government in dealing with
But it was along with Chief Justice Brian Dickson and Justice Bertha
Wilson that Lamer laid the foundation for the Charter, says Sharpe,
which is one of his most notable legacies.
Ratushny tells Law Times that what strikes him most about Lamer’s
career is that it “seems to have been a perfect training for dealing
with the Charter when it came in.”
Called to the Quebec bar in 1957, Lamer practised law at the firm of
Cutler Lamer Bellemare and Associates, developing “quite a practice” as
a criminal defence lawyer in Montreal, practicing in every level of
court in the province, says Ratushny. Lamer’s father was also a lawyer,
and advisor to the Montreal police force, and consequently he was
familiar with the police role and with criminal law at an early age, he
Appointed to the Quebec Superior Court in 1969 at age 36, Lamer was
named vice chair of the Law Reform Commission of Canada in 1971 and
chair in 1976, before joining the Quebec Court of Appeal in 1978.
Ratushny notes that when Lamer returned to the Quebec Court of
Appeal after his time with the Law Reform Commission, where he was
working on the reform of criminal law procedure and evidence, “he
probably knew as much or more about criminal law generally than anyone
in the country.”
Meehan tells Law Times that while Lamer’s legacy in terms of the
judgments he wrote as a member of the Supreme Court will continue, the
less obvious, but enduring legacy was his high level of discipline and
organization, which he says you had to work with Lamer to know.
“He ran, as chief justice, the tightest of tight ships. He
eliminated, with his colleagues . . . the court’s backlog of cases
where the appeals had been heard but judgment not yet delivered and
also the cases were waiting to be heard, but the appeal had not yet
been heard,” he says.
“The result was that people got faster access to justice at Canada’s highest court,” he adds.
“The trains really were running on time . . . there was probably a
significant backlog when he came in and he got on top of that and the
judgments got churned out in a timely way,” adds Ratushny.
As chief justice, Lamer also worked with the Canadian Judicial
Council on the delays project, to help Canada’s chief justices
eliminate backlogs in the trial and appellate courts of other
jurisdictions. “He had, I think, a significant impact on the
administration of justice not only in terms of running the Supreme
Court but also in relation to the courts across the country through the
judicial council,” says Ratushny.
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin noted last week on behalf of the
Supreme Court that Lamer was “an eminent jurist and a fierce defender
of the independence of the judiciary. He served as a justice of the
Supreme Court of Canada and as Chief Justice of Canada during an
important period of Canadian history. He was a forceful advocate for
the rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
His decisions left an indelible mark on both the law and Canadian
society. His presence and passion for the law will be sorely missed.”