That's History: Lawyers once had a military tradition

There have been no lawyers and no law students among the Canadian soldiers and reservists who have died in Afghanistan since 2002.  That’s a change.

A century and more ago, lawyering and military command were widely considered complementary, two aspects of a gentleman’s role in society.

Lawyers were prominent in the Canadian militia - it was, among other things, a useful business-building thing. Young lawyers and law students tended to rush into the cannon’s mouth whenever fighting loomed in Canada or overseas.

Lawyers were prominent in the militia force from Ontario that travelled overland to assert Canadian authority in Red River in 1870.  Lawyers James Macleod, later commissioner of the RCMP, and Frederick Denison of the Toronto military/legal family both saw active service on that expedition.  Denison, indeed, had also turned out to repel the Fenian raiders in 1866.

In the Métis uprising in the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, almost the first casualty was a lawyer named Skeffington Elliott, a relative of Edward Blake, the leading politician and founder of Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP. 

Elliott had ventured west from Toronto to set up a law practice at Prince Albert.  He and other town leaders volunteered to accompany a Mountie force that went to confront Louis Riel at nearby Duck Lake, and he was shot dead as soon as firing commenced.

In response to the news of war in the northwest, so many Ontario law students rallied to the militia force heading west on the new railroad line that the law society gave them an exemption for time under articles that they missed. 

There were others who missed that fighting. In 1884 a British general was preparing to lead an expedition up the Nile River to rescue General Gordon, who was besieged at Khartoum. Young Canadian lawyers got in on that too.

The relief force commander, General Wolseley, had led the British-Canadian military expedition to Red River in 1870.  He remembered the Canadian boatmen who had carried his force along the rivers from Ontario to Fort Garry, and he wanted some of them to guide his Nile boats.

He called on his old aide-de-camp, Frederick Denison, who combined a Toronto legal career with politics and militia service, and Denison began to round up Canadian voyageurs and boatmen from Quebec, the St. Regis reserve, and Manitoba.   

But when the call reached Winnipeg, things changed a bit. The local militia commander did not want all the glory to go to grizzled old nor’westers and riverboat pilots. 

He signed up the enthusiastic young bloods of the city, including a crowd of lawyers and law students.  Denison was not pleased, and the lawyers showed little aptitude for the vital task of steering Wolseley’s boats.  But decades later there were several prominent judges and counsel across the west who could wear the Nile Star.

As the long list of names in the First World War memorial in the Great Library at Osgoode Hall demonstrates so bluntly, militia service and volunteering was still a large part of the lives (and deaths) of young lawyers in 1914-18.  Young lawyers with militia commissions were among the first to go overseas in 1939 as well.

But in the 20th century, law was becoming a profession, a business, and a skill, and losing its close association with duty, honour, and “gentlemanliness” that had been so much of its ethos in the 19th century.

In 1885 and 1914, it was more or less taken for granted that lawyers and law students would be among the first to volunteer – if they were not already militia officers committed to serve.

In the 21st century, however, young lawyers are mostly committed to their careers.  The burden of military service has mostly passed elsewhere.

Christopher Moore’s most recent book is McCarthy Tétrault: Building Canada’s Premier Law Firm, published by Douglas & McIntyre. His web site is www.christophermoore.ca.

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