Canadian Legal Scholarship Has Lost a Pioneer

The Slaw Hall of Fame

This is the first obituary in Slaw, but it’s a tribute to a figure whom many Slaw readers may not have known but who was very significant in the development of a distinct Canadian legal culture. Dr. Peter Oliver of York University was not a lawyer, but his work catalyzed the production of a corpus of Canadian legal history.

Peter died of cancer two weeks back, after a tough illness. He was a History Professor at York University, author of five books, Editor-in-Chief of The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, and Associate Editor of The Ontario Historical Studies Series. He was a recipient of the Order of Ontario, the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, and the Guthrie Medal. Those of you who know about the Guthrie medal may spot that it’s the Law Foundation’s highest honour awarded to advancing legal research and scholarship, for “outstanding public service which makes a significant contribution to the furthering of legal education and research in Ontario”. Peter was a fine, gentle man.

Peter was educated at the University of Toronto and Harvard. Among his books were Public and Private Persons: The Ontario Political Culture, 1914-1934, which Clarke, Irwin published in 1975, G. Howard Ferguson, Ontario Tory, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1977, a life of Allan Grossman, entitled Unlikely Tory which Lester & Orpen Dennys published in 1985, and the definitive work on 19th Century penology in Ontario, ‘Terror to Evil-Doers’: Prisons and Punishments in Nineteenth-Century Ontario.

But it’s his founding of the Osgoode Society that’s significant to the readers of Slaw. On a personal note, I well remember being asked by the current Chief Justice (then Attorney General) Roy McMurtry to organize a lunch in the Sir John A. room at the Albany Club, in 1979, it must have been, to discuss Canadian legal history and the state of scholarship in the areaIf you want to see how far we’ve come see Christopher Moore’s helpful reading list.

Peter had found Roy. And it was an important breakthrough. Stemming from his work over twenty years as Associate Editor of the Ontario Historical Studies Series, Peter knew just how important it was to have a publishing programme into which scholars could collaborate to build a library of integrated scholarshipAnd one that wasn’t quite as dry as the Selden Society. Peter recognized that despite the pioneering work of Dick Risk, Canadian legal history needed such an institutional vehicle. So in May 1979, the Osgoode Society was incorporated at the initiative of the Attorney General who worked with officials of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Since thenSlaw readers might be interested in the Lieutenant Governor’s tribute, the Osgoode Society, which in 1993 became the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, has published 60 books and has 1,000 members – ten per cent of whom are sustaining members.There have now been over forty volumes published by The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History.

The legal history scene in Canada has changed dramatically in the last twenty yearsSee In The Northern Archives Something Stirred: The Discovery Of Canadian Legal History by John McLaren. The field has reached maturity, and it is alive with talented scholars and impressive scholarship. The Osgoode Society, which has published much of this scholarship, now has forty or so books to its credit. Most law schools have at least one committed legal historian, sometimes moreIt is inexplicable to me that the Law Library at York’s page on legal history doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of the Osgoode Society.

As Dick Risk pointed out long ago, legal history is situated in place and time, rooted in a particular society. Peter fostered not merely Canadian legal history but Ontario legal history. From the beginning, the Osgoode Society has attempted to maintain a publishing balance between books that are ‘popular’ and books that are more ‘academic’ in nature.
The Society has published biographical studies of Supreme Court of Canada justices Bertha Wilson and Brian Dickson. The membership book for 2005 was a biography of former Chief Justice Bora Laskin. This is sent to all members for the membership fee of $45.00.

In addition to publishing, the Osgoode Society has an extensive Oral History program, interviewing both prominent and representative members of the profession. It is currently working on a comprehensive oral history of the Ministry of the Attorney General, 1960s to 1990s, funded partly by the Osgoode Society and partly by the Ministry. To date, the Oral History program has carried out more than 402 interviews and has deposited approximately 62,000 pages of transcript in the Ontario Archives. A complete list is printed each year in the Osgoode Society’s annual report. Much of the material is open to researchers and may be accessed through the Ontario Archives.

Peter’s death will be a major blow to the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal history – but his legacy is that shelf and a half of impressive brown books – the corpus of the Osgoode Society – which compliments his own scholarship.

His family asked that in lieu of flowers, donations to The Osgoode Society to support student research in legal history would be appreciated.

The Osgoode Society
Osgoode Hall, 130 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. M5H 2N6
Tel: 416-947-3321
Fax: 416-946-3447

For those who want to see more there was a nice tribute in Saturday’s Globe the Globe on Saturday.

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