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U of O alumnus is the newest addition to the Supreme Court

Andrew Ikeman | Fulcrum Staff

Photo By Kyle Hansford

The Supreme Court of Canada contains nine of the brightest legal minds in the country, and on Oct. 2, 2012, University of Ottawa alumnus Richard Wagner was appointed to the position of Puisne Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. The son of Claude Wagner, former Progressive Conservative member of Parliament (MP) and member of the national assembly (MNA) of Quebec, who also served as Quebec’s attorney general and minister of justice, Justice Wagner received his bachelor and law degrees at the U of O in 1978 and 1979 respectively. He worked as a lawyer and mediator in Montreal from 1980 to 2004—during which time he became the bâtonnier of the bar of Montreal—when he was appointed to the Quebec Superior Court. He served there until 2011, at which point he was elevated to the Quebec Court of Appeal. The Fulcrum recently sat down with Justice Wagner to find out how he is adjusting to life on the highest court in the land.

The Fulcrum: What made you want to become a lawyer and, subsequently a judge?
Justice Richard Wagner: There are two main reasons, I would say. First, as a teenager, I always liked to debate and to argue; that was my personality, I guess. But I was influenced by my father for sure because he was involved in the legal circle; he was a judge, he was a lawyer, he was a teacher, he was a minister of justice. He brought me with him when I was six or seven years old to the courthouse—the Ernest-Cormier building in Montreal—where I practiced as a judge at the Court of Appeal as well. I remember that I was very impressed by the building, by the lawyers arguing. So that for sure was an influence in my career, with my personality and my interests. So what I wanted to do was to become a litigation lawyer—I wanted to go to court, I wanted to argue cases—and that’s why I chose my law firm, according to this priority. I even considered working for legal aid, because in those days they were going to court very often in many cases. So I wanted to argue cases. I was satisfied because I was with the firm Lavery, Johnston, Clark, Carrière, Mason, and Partners in those days, which was a litigation firm. As an articling student I had the chance to argue a case on the merit,[in] provincial court, and superior court, and even before the Court of Appeal. That’s what I did, and I was really privileged to do it.

What did you like most about your time at the University of Ottawa?
It was great; I love the University of Ottawa. We had small groups, and everybody knew each other. I had been doing both of my degrees at the same time—political science and a law degree—but they were small classes. Teachers were very good; we had a good mix between academics and private practice lawyers. So I loved every year I spent at the U of O. It’s a nice environment also—it’s clean, it’s good for sports, it’s quiet. I loved every year.

What do you think are some of the current issues facing law students?
I think the biggest challenge is competition, because there are many lawyers coming out of schools. I think students should be ready and willing to travel, to consider all types of practice, and to keep their mind open to new things. I think that every period has its own challenges. I remember in my days, we considered that there were too many students; the job openings were not as numbered as they could be. I guess young students are saying the same things today, but the difference is that more and more young students will be able to work outside their own communities now. Whereas in our own days, you would often be called to work in your environment—your city, your province. You will see more and more students who will go elsewhere; they will go to Europe, they will go to another province, because of the new economy. That’s a big difference.

What would you tell yourself if you could speak to yourself in your first year of law school?
Don’t abandon your dreams. Never. It may look difficult in the future, but we have this society that will provide all kinds of possibilities, and you should never give up your dreams. That’s what I wish someone had told me when I was in first year, but I think I was able to live up to my expectations. In other words, I’ve done what I wanted to do, I’ve worked hard, and I [met] my goals.

How do you feel about being appointed to the highest court in the land?
There are a lot of feelings, I must say. Its quite special for a jurist; I mean there are only nine people in the country sitting on this court. So I felt honoured, but with the honour also comes the responsibility. The legal issues are so important here, that you feel the weight of the responsibility. But fortunately I work with eight other people, and the welcome was great. We have a great chief justice [Beverley McLachlin] as well. [She is] very bright, very impressive; she is a real leader and will bring all of the members together. So we don’t feel like we are alone. This collegial work is very positive.

What do you hope to accomplish as a Supreme Court justice?
I can say that basically it is a contribution that you can bring. As I mentioned, we are nine members of the court, so you will contribute to render justice. I’m a true believer in the legal system in Canada. I was able when I was bâtonnier of Montreal to compare [our] legal system with other systems around the world. And I have no [problem] with telling you that we have one of the best legal systems in the world. I want to make sure we keep the faith of our citizens in our legal system, and one of the ways to do it is to render the best possible decisions, and that is what I will try to do.

What do you think is the best thing about the Canadian legal system?
I think that the best quality of our system is the impartiality of the judiciary. That’s the main reason we have such a [strong] democracy, and that’s why it is so important that we fight for the independence of the judiciary. Maybe people will take it for granted, but we have to fight for it every time to remind people of the necessity to maintain the independence and the impartiality of the judiciary system.