This is what I might call a “meat-and-potatoes” kind of autobiography; by that, I mean that it’s unadorned and rings with honesty and integrity. McLachlin modestly glides over the fact that her multiple achievements and her meteoric rise through the ranks of Canadian jurists to the very top position were truly remarkable. When she began studying law in the 1960s, there were few women doing so — and little was expected of those who sought to penetrate that male preserve. And yet she arrived at the Supreme Court at an age when many practicing lawyers would be pleased to have just made partner in their own firm.
Her humble beginnings on a foothills ranch obviously influenced her approach to the daunting tasks that faced her in life. And her rigorous training in the exacting business of writing decisions, along with a love of good literature, prompted her to write in clear, unambiguous prose with no pretensions and no wasted words. The book flows along effortlessly. She simply sets out to tell a story and do so in a manner that invites the reader to pay attention and read every word of it to the end. There aren’t many books that can accomplish that — especially among autobiographies, where the temptation to embellish, digress, dissemble or boast is usually far too great. (Which is why I seldom read autobiographies.)
“I had learned my first lesson in judging: listen. If you think you know the answer, you probably don’t. If you think you are the smartest person in the room, you’re probably in the wrong room. Listening will help you get the right answer.”
Beverley McLachlin was appointed to the top court in the midst of that body’s most exciting period, when the court was faced with a deluge of profoundly important questions arising from the repatriation of our Constitution and the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; a document that fundamentally redefined what kinds of laws our legislatures may enact — and how those laws are to be interpreted and applied. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Charter and the decisions rendered by the Supreme Court during the final two decades of the 20th century profoundly changed what it means to be a Canadian. At such a critical time, finding the right nine individuals to sit in judgment was of critical importance. McLachlin had no need to emphasize the magnitude of the task she and her colleagues faced and she relates those facts in the most matter-of-fact manner possible.
“Drawing the appropriate lines between the right to say what we believe — even though others may find it offensive — and the need to protect individuals and groups from hatred is the kind of work that wakes you up in the middle of the night with a dark fear in the pit of your stomach that you won’t get it right. As a trial judge and a member of the BC Court of Appeal, I had comforted myself that if I got it wrong, there was another court to correct me. But now I was on the final court, and there was no further recourse. The buck stopped with us. And what we decided could affect not only the law but the way women, men and children lived their lives and the kind of country Canada would be.”
Reading this book caused me to be extremely grateful that our judges, once appointed, bear no fealty to the politicians who selected them to serve. Our courts, unlike those of many nations, are beyond the corrosive influence of political ambition, expediency and gerrymandering. Let us hope that as Canadians we continue to have the moral courage, wisdom and determination to keep it that way. Therein lies true democracy.