Roy McMurtry, Ontario's former attorney general and chief justice, dies at 91

He is remembered as an advocate for legal aid, bilingualism in the courts, and social justice

Roy McMurtry, Ontario's former attorney general and chief justice, dies at 91
Roy McMurtry

Former Ontario Attorney General Roland Roy McMurtry has died at the age of 91.

Roy McMurtry's career was marked by significant contributions to the justice system as the Ontario attorney general and subsequently as the province’s chief justice. He was recognized for making the Ontario judicial system bilingual and implementing reforms to enhance access to justice and human rights.

While serving as attorney general under Bill Davis' Progressive Conservative government, McMurtry chaired the Ontario cabinet committee on race relations and was instrumental in initiating many judicial reforms. His advocacy extended to launching a network of community legal aid clinics, aiming to ensure equitable representation for the economically disadvantaged within the criminal justice framework.

The Criminal Lawyers Association, represented by its president Boris Bytensky, remarked on McMurtry’s significant role in the creation and expansion of the province's legal aid system,

"It's not widely known, but the model that we've had about ensuring that the poorest and most needy persons in Ontario who are caught up in the criminal justice system got fair and meaningful representation was through the efforts of Roy McMurtry," Bytensky said.

McMurtry's legacy includes a pivotal role in negotiating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the patriation of Canada’s constitution from the United Kingdom in 1982.

Following his political career, McMurtry took on the role of Canada's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom before being appointed to the judiciary. He was appointed to the bench in 1991, where he served as associate chief justice and then chief justice of the Superior Court before being appointed to the Court of Appeal as Ontario's chief justice. McMurtry is one of two people in Ontario history to serve as both attorney general and the chief justice of the province’s highest court.

His contributions were acknowledged through several honours, including the Order of Ontario and an appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada.

As John Campion, lawyer and Emeritus Bencher of the Law Society of Ontario, noted in a LinkedIn tribute, McMurtry also created the Ontario Law Reform Commission, the Osgoode Society for Legal History, and wrote the decision legalizing gay marriage in Canada. Campion noted that McMurtry was a strong supporter of Indigenous Ontarians and appointed Justice Rosalie Abella to the Family Court in 1976. Abella was 29 years old and pregnant at the time, went on to be the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, and is one of Canada’s most celebrated legal figures.

“Roy has an unending line of admirers from all walks of life. A giant of contributions and civility,” said Campion.

The Court of Appeal recognized his "tremendous impact" on the province and the country's legal and broader societal framework. The court wrote that “Former Chief Justice McMurtry was a giant whose vision and brilliance helped shape the province and country we live in today.” In tribute, the flag at Osgoode Hall, home of the Appeal Court, was lowered to half-staff.

Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey commended McMurtry's enduring commitment to justice and leadership. Downey described McMurtry as “a lawyer, husband, father, and wise leader at his very core.”

A multipartisan chorus of tributes on X followed news of McMurtry’s death.

“From his work which helped to establish the Charter, to the legalization of same sex marriage, Roy McMurtry fought to build a better, fairer, more inclusive Canada,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posted.

Erin O’Toole, former leader of the federal Conservative Party, wrote: “Roy McMurtry was a true renaissance man in Ontario politics. His legacy is positive on so many levels.”

“I knew Roy McMurtry as a tremendous jurist, a gentle giant, & above all, an inspiring mentor,” said Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Arif Virani. “... he was a champion of the Charter & worked to protect equal rights for all Canadians. His passing is a great loss, especially for the legal community.”

Former NDP premier Bob Rae, who currently serves as the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, said "I was very glad to have been able to visit and reminisce with him on a recent trip to Toronto. My deepest condolences to his family."

“A sad day in Canada,” said former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. “Roy McMurtry was a loving, brilliant man who served the people of Ontario with dignity, intelligence and good humour. We all owe him a debt of gratitude.”

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