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Bonnie Tough a ‘role model for any litigator’

|Written By Michael McKiernan

Bonnie Tough’s laugh and love of fun will live on in those who met her.

The Toronto litigator and Law Society of Upper Canada bencher died on May 6 at the age of 59 following a 22-month battle with brain cancer.

Bonnie Tough died on May 6 following a battle with brain cancer.

“It was a notorious laugh,” says Kathryn Podrebarac, Tough’s partner at Tough & Podrebarac LLP since the firm’s founding in 2005.

“It’s hard to describe but it certainly wasn’t quiet, and when she really got going, she’d take off her glasses and start wiping away tears.”

“We did a lot of laughing together,” says Podrebarac, whose connection to Tough goes all the way back to 1991 when she articled under her at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP.

Podrebarac notes many young lawyers in practice today have benefited from the wisdom of Tough, who was always willing to take junior colleagues under her wing.

“She was a wonderful advocate and a terrific mentor,” Podrebarac says. “She was very inclusive and respectful of viewpoints, regardless of whether they came from articling students, senior lawyers, clients or wherever. The lessons she taught me in integrity and professionalism will stay with me.

“Quite apart from all that, she was a fabulous, fun person to be around. Often in this business, you end up spending more time with the people you work with than anyone else, and I just loved working and hanging out with her. She was a wonderful, terrifically supportive friend.”

Tough grew up in the northern Ontario communities of Kirkland Lake and Elliot Lake and graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1976. She received an LLM from the University of Oxford before clerking at the Supreme Court of Canada and was called to the bar in Ontario in 1980.

Linda Rothstein, who knew Tough for two decades and also sat with her as a bencher of the law society, says Tough’s humble beginnings gave her a deep appreciation for her own education and the opportunities it had opened up for her.

Rothstein read the citation at a special law society ceremony held last month to award Tough an honorary doctor of laws for her contribution to the profession. She described Tough as “everything a lawyer should be: brilliant, independent, learned, tough, compassionate, wise, and collegial.”

“She was among the most talented in our midst,” Rothstein says. “She was extremely brainy, with a very good legal mind, and as tenacious as they come.

The thing that sets her apart from the very small group of people of her talent is that she was just extraordinarily down to earth and lacking in any significant self-regard. She was confident without your ever thinking she was the least bit arrogant. She was just better at what we do than most people.”

Tough spent most of her 30-year legal career in the litigation department at Blakes, where she became a partner in 1985.

She specialized in insurance law and worked on commercial litigation and class actions acting for both plaintiffs and defendants.

She also taught at Osgoode and practised health law. In the 1980s, she sat as chairwoman of the health facilities review board and later worked as counsel to the Canadian Hemophilia Society before the Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada. During those proceedings, she represented hemophiliacs claiming damages as a result of their infection with hepatitis C.

In 1999, Tough left Blakes to start a boutique litigation practice and later teamed up with Podrebarac. Since Tough’s death, condolences have been flooding in at Podrebarac’s office from people at all levels of the legal profession.

“It didn’t matter whether she was talking to the chief justice one minute or someone’s assistant the next, she was the same person,” Podrebarac says. “People have been sending me notes to say how much fun she was to be around, calling her a lion, incredible, the best of the best.

They sound like empty superlatives, but if you knew her, you know they aren’t.”

In 2007, Tough became an elected bencher of the law society, where Janet Minor sat with her at Convocation.

“She was a role model for any litigator, but particularly for women because she was such a success and one of the pioneer female litigators,” Minor says. “She was committed, energetic, extremely insightful, and always brought both intelligence and common sense to bear on whatever issue we were considering.”

According to an obituary published in a number of newspapers, Tough enjoyed hiking and biking with her partner Connie Reeve and took up running after her 50th birthday. She completed four half-marathons, including one in 2009 after undergoing radiation and chemotherapy to treat her illness.

A celebration of Tough’s life will take place on May 16 at 3 p.m. at Koerner Hall at 273 Bloor St. W. in Toronto.

  • Joe Bovard
    Bonnie and I were in the same class at Osgoode. I was always impressed with the high degree of integrity and good will that she radiated. I send my condolences to her family and friends.
  • Michele Ballagh
    A terrible loss to the profession. I only met her once, but she left an indelible impression.
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