Remembering Attorney General Roy McMurtry

The Hon. Roy McMurtry had a stellar career, serving as Chief Justice of Ontario, Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Commissioner of the Canadian Football League, and Attorney General of Ontario. When he passed away in March, many of the tributes rightly focussed on the critical role he played in reaching “the kitchen accord” which led to the patriation of the Constitution with the enactment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 35 and the notwithstanding clause. Other tributes noted his participation in the landmark case of Halpern v. Canada (2003), which legalized same-sex marriage.

Because McMurtry died the week of the funeral for former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, his death did not get the breadth of attention that it should have. In particular, with all of McMurtry’s accomplishments, the enormity of his achievements as Ontario’s Attorney General between 1975 and 1985 was somewhat lost.

The sheer longevity of Mr. McMurtry’s tenure of Attorney General is remarkable. We are unlikely to see anything like it in the future. In the decade after McMurtry’s tenure, there were five Attorneys General (Robert Welch, Alan Pope, Ian Scott, Howard Hampton and Marion Boyd). This coincided with the end of the Tories’ 40-year reign in Ontario, the election of the NDP under Bob Rae and Liberal rule under David Peterson. In the Harris-Eves years (1995-2003), there were four Attorneys General (Charles Harnick, Jim Flaherty, David Young and Norm Sterling). Liberal Dalton McGuinty (2003-13) had three Attorneys General (Michael J. Bryant, Chris Bentley and John Gerretsen) and his successor Kathleen Wynne (2013-18) also had three Attorneys General (Gerretsen, Madelaine Meilleur and Yasir Naqvi). So far, Premier Doug Ford (2018-) has only had two Attorneys General (Caroline Mulroney and Doug Downey).

During his ten-year term as Attorney General, Mr. McMurtry significantly overhauled the administration of justice in Ontario. When I worked as an advisor to Attorney General Michael Bryant, we marvelled at the sheer number of bills that McMurtry was able to pass each year. This was due to McMurtry’s stature within Premier Bill Davis’s cabinet and his ability to forge consensus and support from the NDP and Liberal opposition parties.

As a result, McMurtry introduced family law reforms, expanded legal aid and made Ontario’s justice system bilingual. On the latter issue, he faced – and overcame – significant opposition within his own party.

McMurtry put his stamp on the Ministry of the Attorney General to such an extent that senior officials were known as “Roy’s Boys”. This caused some problems for his successor and friend, Ian Scott. It is well-known that Scott reversed McMurtry’s position in the Blainey case, where Justine Blainey challenged her exclusion from a boy’s hockey team.

Attorney General Michael Bryant greatly respected both McMurtry and Scott who in turn were much revered amongst the staff at 720 Bay Street, the headquarters of Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General. Bryant decided to change the building’s name to “The McMurtry-Scott Building”. At the memorable event, both McMurtry and Scott were in attendance and McMurtry said that he was honoured that his name was to be put on the building along with that of his friend Ian Scott. Scott reciprocated the sentiment. The two were both cut from a different cloth.

Scott passed away in 2006 and now his friend Roy McMurtry has joined him. Two giants of the law.

We all live in Roy McMurtry’s legal world. From family law reform to legal aid to bilingualism in the courts to patriation of the Constitution and the enactment of the Charter to the legalization of same-sex marriage to the creation of Pro Bono Ontario, there are so many areas of the law and of life that McMurtry impacted.

We owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

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