Remembering and Paying Tribute to Joseph J. Arvay QC, OC, OBC, LLD

Reflections by Gerry Ferguson, distinguished professor, faculty of Law at the University of Victoria.

Joe Arvay was a good friend to many of us and a shining star in our legal universe. When I think of Joe, I cannot get Elton John’s tribute song to Princess Diana (and Norma Jean) out of my head – “his candle burnt out long before his legend ever will.” Joe died of a sudden heart attack while still in full flight at age 71. Joe was viewed by many as Canada’s pre-eminent legal advocate for the civil rights and liberties of us all, and especially those from the most marginalized groups.

I got to know Joe briefly when we started our legal careers in the 1970’s as law professors – he in Windsor and me in Ottawa. After I moved to the newly created Law School in Victoria, Joe shifted to private law practice in Ontario. A few years later he made the big move to Victoria to join the constitutional law group in the Ministry of the Attorney General. After eight years with the Ministry, he started his own boutique law firm with John Finlay and Murray Rankin. Joe became a great friend and supporter of the UVic Law Faculty and its students from the moment he arrived in Victoria in 1981. Over the years he was a sessional lecturer, a frequent guest instructor, an enthusiastic mentor to many of our students and a willing coach of our moot teams. His brilliance, integrity, passion and humanity always shone through. A coffee or lunch with Joe was always a special treat. He was engaged, witty, and just a pleasure to be with.

As many of you know, Joe was acknowledged by his peers and the judges he appeared before as one of the very finest legal advocates. He was a lead advocate in a number of landmark constitutional and charter cases. Many of his victories have become the stuff of legal legend. In the Insite case, Joe famously referred to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside safe injection site as a “life-raft in a sea of misery” and then he proceeded to convince the Supreme Court to issue a unanimous judgment permitting the injection site to stay open. His eight-year court battle to overturn the Sue Rodriguez case in order to allow for medical assistance in dying ended with a resounding victory. His passionate advocacy in the Supreme Court is renowned. He was also a lead counsel in many other landmark cases for Indigenous rights and reconciliation, the right of workers to associate in pursuit of workplace goals, LGBTQ rights, an attack on solitary confinement practices in federal prisons as cruel and unusual treatment, and at the time of his death, a challenge to the federal government’s response to the climate change emergency on behalf of 15 young persons. Joe Arvay’s legacy will live on in the lasting impact of these cases and the skill and tireless effort that he devoted to them.

Joe’s law partners and friends have joined forces with UVic Law to create the Joseph Arvay Legacy Fund. Quite simply, the fund is designed to recognize and honour Joe’s exceptional accomplishments, and to carry on his legacy by creating a new generation of “Joe Arvays.” The Legacy Fund will encourage and support law students who have an interest in following the visionary work of Joe Arvay in public interest legal advocacy. The fund will support students pursuing a public interest career through work placements, awards and financial aid, and law mentoring.

If you would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to honour and remember Joe Arvay, please follow the link to the Legacy Fund:

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