The legal community was out in full force last week to honour Alan Borovoy, who is retiring as general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association after over 40 years of leading some of the most important social battles in Canadian history.
“It’s a little overwhelming and it’s a little hard for me - I haven’t quite been able to assimilate it all,” Borovoy tells Law Times in an interview, the day after a gala dinner was held for him.
“I’m certainly very grateful for that expression of support. It’s given me the feeling that something in our program has caught on with people, and that’s a very nice feeling to walk away with; that we may have been making more of a difference than I could have realized.”
During the tribute, held at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto, Borovoy was roasted by the best throughout the evening, taking some friendly jabs from legal heavyweights including Supreme Court of Canada Justice Ian Binnie; former York University president Harry Arthurs; Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Robert Sharpe; CCLA chairman John McCamus; and criminal defence lawyer Edward Greenspan, who acted as master of ceremonies.
The following quote from Binnie’s address at the dinner offers a taste of the quips that went Borovoy’s way throughout the night:
“Alan has played a major role in virtually every worthwhile civil liberties march, sit in, protest, legislative hearing, for the past 50 or 60 years - maybe even 70 years. He’s certainly been identified with every major breakthrough, every major story that I can remember - he’s a sort of thinking man’s Peter Mansbridge,” said Binnie.
The event proved a massive success, with some 600 seats sold at $200 each, with proceeds going to the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust. The charitable organization performs research and public education.
“Alan has devoted his whole life to civil liberties in Canada,” Sharpe tells Law Times in an interview. “I don’t think anyone could equal the contribution that he’s made.”
Sharpe says the overwhelming response for the tribute dinner can be attributed to the respect Borovoy has gained over the years.
“I think people admire what he has done,” he says. “In a way it’s been an ideal legal career devoted to public service. He didn’t go into law to make money; he went into law because he believes in his principles and he was prepared to dedicate his whole life to those principles. And he’s also a funny guy. He’s a delightful guy. Witty, entertaining, and engaging, so people like him.”
Greenspan noted that Justice Sidney Linden of the Ontario Court of Justice, formerly the court’s chief judge, was actually the CCLA’s general counsel before Borovoy came on board.
“It paid so poorly that he had to leave in order to make a salary,” said Greenspan, in jest. “Alan was approached, and he thought it was too much, and he took it. And the only reason I’m mentioning this is, for $10 a week more, Sid Linden would be here tonight, and Alan Borovoy would be a patent lawyer at a big-city law firm,” he said as the packed crowd exploded into laughter.
University of Ottawa Law School Prof. Nathalie Des Rosiers, who will take over as general counsel for the CCLA July 1, admitted in her remarks at the tribute dinner that there is no way she will fill Borovoy’s shoes upon his departure.
“No one replaces Alan Borovoy, and I’m not going to try,” she said. “One of the things we share is admiration for the staff at CCLA . . . and the same belief that it’s necessary to advocate constantly and with vigilance for the values of fairness, free speech, and constitutional protection of the most vulnerable.”
Des Rosiers previously served as dean of the law faculty’s civil law section, but ended that position last November.
Her experience also includes a stint as president of the Law Commission of Canada from 2000 to 2004, and she was a member of the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Law from 1987 to 2000 and a clerk to Supreme Court of Canada justice Julien Chouinard from 1982 to 1983, after which she was in private practice until 1987. She received her legal training from the Université de Montréal, obtaining her LLB in 1981, and at Harvard University, where she got an LLM in 1984.
Borovoy arrived at the CCLA in 1968. He previously had led the Ontario Labour Committee for Human Rights, helping push governments to pass anti-discrimination laws and enforcement mechanisms. One of the biggest contributions for the CCLA during Borovoy’s time there came in 1970 when the organization took an isolating position and opposed the War Measures Act during the October Crisis. In 1982, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Borovoy says what he will miss most after leaving the CCLA will be “the action.”
“I get a special kick out of hearing a problem and working it through to a piece of action at the other end,” he says. “There’s the challenge of coming up with a bright idea that is going to work. That will light a fire under someone to do the right thing.”
While there have been many fluctuations in terms of civil liberties in recent history, Borovoy says “profound changes” have occurred in society over the past 50 or 60 years.
“We’re a long distance from utopia - in fact I don’t consciously think utopia, our job is to keep seeking improvements,” he says.
Meanwhile Borovoy is confident Des Rosiers has what it takes to be general counsel. “She’s very able. The combination of her and our project directors in the various departments, that combination I have a lot of confidence in,” he says. “I think together they’re going to produce good things.”
Borovoy says he hopes to continue writing - both books and in the news media - after officially leaving the post June 30. He also plans to continue teaching and speaking on the issues that matter to him, but adds that he’s eager to consider any other ideas that come his way.
As Borovoy steps away from the CCLA, he leaves a few words of wisdom in terms of the task ahead for the civil liberties movement.
“Am I confident that things will improve? I’m confident that they can improve, not that they will improve, because things don’t happen automatically,” he says. “They happen when there are people around, like my colleagues, who are prepared to make it happen.”
Click here[/a] to watch a video of the event