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Thursday August 9, 2012

'I am the damn judge'

Ontario's first madam justice sometimes went unrecognized when people were expecting a man

Special to The Globe and Mail

Retired Madame Justice Mabel Van Camp of the Ontario Supreme Court, who died on April 19 in Amherstview, Ont., was born in Blackstock, 70 kilometres northeast of Toronto, in 1920.

Then as now, Blackstock was a farming village of a few hundred people; Port Perry, 10 kilometres west on Lake Scugog, was "town."

At Blackstock's single crossroads sits the Van Camp house where she and her three younger sisters grew up. Next door was the garage operated by their father, William; down the road was the one-room school.

She once said that most village kids had no idea there was a Depression. A barter economy, plentiful food, family and friends, and nearby nature made life not just endurable, but fun.

From the first, Blackstock knew Mabel Van Camp was special: She read voraciously and argued with teachers over verb conjugations. Respect for education ran in the family. Her grandfather helped establish the local high school; her father had it extended to Grade 13.

Van Camp finished her five years of high school at the age of 16 and then became the first person from Blackstock to go to university.

For a girl, this was unheard of: After high school young Ontario ladies were expected to become teachers, nurses, typists or homemakers. But Van Camp's bar was higher. She got a liberal arts degree from the University of Toronto and then an law degree at Osgoode Hall Law School.

At U of T in the 1940s, university classes were small and filled with lively discussion. Van Camp's specific interests were English, history, economics and her beloved Latin; she ended by developing a fascination with law.

Unfortunately, 1940s Canada was hostile to women lawyers.

When Van Camp approached the dean of Osgoode to discuss a legal career, he told her he admired her gumption but that she should forget it; the difficulties were too great.

She thanked him, enrolled anyway, graduated cum laude and was called to the bar in 1947.

At that point she saw what the dean was talking about. It took her six months to break into one of Bay Street's all-male law firms: She was hired by a desperate principal, Gerald Beaudoin, whose entire slate of juniors had quit.

Beaudoin's encouraging words to his new female junior was that she "probably wouldn't last the week."

Once again Van Camp beat the odds, lasting past the week and then effectively running the practice for two years when Beaudoin fell ill.

When the dust cleared, there was a new law firm in Toronto: Beaudoin, Pepper & Van Camp.

The timing was perfect. Women's issues had finally begun to percolate to the higher levels of government, and the more progressive members of the federal and provincial cabinets were talking about appointing female judges.

In 1971 Van Camp's phone rang. The caller identified himself as one Pierre Trudeau, and asked her if she would accept an appointment to the Supreme Court of Ontario. She said yes.

This at once raised questions. The honorific "Ms." was not yet current; for centuries judges had been "Mr. Justice." What to call her? "Miss Justice" was suggested, but rejected: "It sounds too much like In Justice," she said. They settled on "Madam Justice," which remains in use today.

Despite her unheard-of achievement, there was still work to do. When she joined her first clubs in Toronto, she had to enter by the side door. Once she was upbraided by a red-faced member for having invaded the sacrosanct, all-male Royal Canadian Military Institute.

The scandalized member did not recognize his institute's newly appointed first female member.

Expectations everywhere were that judges were men, full stop. When on circuit duty to courthouses far from Toronto, Van Camp often had to announce who she was.

In one Northern Ontario town, the local sheriff did not not recognize her when she stepped off the train. Finding no one to escort her to the court, she hopped a cab and found the court house in an uproar. "We've lost the damn judge!" the clerk cried. "I am the damn judge," she replied.

Throughout her time on the bench Van Camp proved firm but compassionate. One case illustrates her approach: A distraught young mother was brought before her charged with murdering her child. The judge was constrained by the facts to find a guilty verdict, but wondered publicly why the woman had not been charged with infanticide, a crime that carried a lesser penalty.

A letter Van Camp received at her retirement in 1995 from Madam Justice Rosalie Abella said: "I remember how proud I was as a brand new lawyer to see you on the bench ... that was exactly the kind of inspiration an eager, enthusiastic young lawyer like me needed ... There's no one like you, Mabel; you singlehandedly made it possible for the rest of us."

While she rose higher than any woman had before her in Canadian law, Madam Justice Mabel Margaret Van Camp never forgot where she came from. She leaves a sister, Jessie Gunter, six nieces and nephews and nine great-nieces and nephews. She put all 15 of the youngsters through school.

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