Yukon Supreme Court Justice Leigh Gower died over the past weekend after being medevaced to Edmonton following a “serious medical event.”
His death was made public Monday. He was in his early 60s.
Gower was appointed as a Supreme Court justice on Oct. 28, 2003.
Chief Justice Ron Veale of the Supreme Court of Yukon told the Star early this afternoon that Gower was a fabulous judge. The two were judicial partners for 15 years.
“He was a joy to work with,” Veale said.
He said everyone is reeling from the news.
He said Gower was an amazing man who was well-known for more than just his legal career.
Veale pointed out Gower liked to go skiing, hiking and canoeing. He practised karate and rode a motorcycle.
He remembered Gower as a hard-working judge with a real heart. He would work hard and quickly to get his decisions ready. He feels Gower’s decisions will stand the test of time.
“They will be cited for decades to come,” Veale said.
He said it was rare that someone could beat Gower to the office in the morning; Gower was always there at 7 a.m.
Veale explained Gower did not have many cases still pending, saying he was mostly up to date with decisions.
He said any pending decisions would have to be evaluated to see how far along Gower had been.
As for his schedule, the 50 deputy justices will have to fill in. It’s expected it will take the federal government well into 2019 to name a successor to Gower.
Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said in a statement this afternoon Gower was a dedicated justice who served with integrity, in addition to an actor and family man.
“Leigh Gower was the measure of what we in the justice system look to in our judiciary: intelligent, thoughtful, open-minded and yet respectful of precedent.”
McPhee has worked with him when he was a lawyer and appeared before him after he became a judge.
“I consider both to have been a great privilege,” she wrote.
“His absence leaves a profound void in both our legal system and in our hearts.”
Nils Clarke, the Speaker of the Yukon Legislative Assembly, told the Star this morning he knew Gower and his family well.
Both men came to the territory to practise law around the same time, with Clarke coming to Whitehorse after Gower in 1992. They worked together at the Whitehorse law firm Preston, Willis and Leitch.
They would eventually go their separate ways. Gower would start his own practice while Clarke went to the Yukon Legal Aid Society in 1996.
He said Gower would eventually become a Crown agent, and Clarke was a defence lawyer at the time. Both handled cases together, but from different sides.
Clarke said Gower’s career could be defined by his preparedness, presenting innovative and rehabilitative solutions, willingness to help First Nations, as well as those in tough circumstances, and being fair.
He did appear before Gower once he became a judge. He said it was a positive experience, explaining if a lawyer was prepared, Gower was ready to listen.
“You knew you were going to get a fair hearing,” he said.
He explained Gower had 30 years’ worth of institutional knowledge of the North, and that his passing will leave a void.
Clarke first heard of Gower’s death yesterday. He said it was shocking and saddening.
He offered condolences to Gower’s wife, son and daughter. He announced the passing in the legislature Monday afternoon.
Larry Bagnell, the Yukon’s MP, issued a statement on Gower’s death this morning.
“The sudden loss of Justice Gower has been a shock to Yukoners,” he said.
“Leigh was a sharp legal mind and a long-standing member of the bar in the Yukon before being appointed to the Supreme Court of Yukon in 2003. Well regarded by the legal community, Leigh will be missed by his colleagues,” the statement added.
Bagnell called the judge’s passing “a terrible loss for the Yukon, our legal community, and the bench.”
Mark Wallace, a lawyer and the president of the Law Society Yukon, told the Star he respected Gower as both a judge and as a person.
“He was quite the gentleman,” he said.
He described Gower as well-reasoned, properly versed in law and a justice who wrote well-thought-out decisions. He said he was a judge who always wanted to know the facts and was well-prepared for court. He always had questions ready to ask.
“He’s going to be missed both as a judge and as a person,” Wallace said.
He noted that Gower was a pleasure to appear before, even when he disagreed with a lawyer’s arguments.
He felt the Yukon is much better off legally having had Gower sit as a Supreme Court justice and practising law beforehand.
Local lawyer André Roothman said in an interview he was in shock when he learned of Gower’s death Monday.
Roothman took over Gower’s position at Miller Thomson LLP in 2004, as Gower left that position for his court appointment.
Roothman said Gower was a detail-oriented judge who wrote legally sound decisions, and felt they had a good rapport.
He recalled approaching Gower when he came to Whitehorse in 2004. He said Gower was helpful in their talks of how to practise law in the territory.
“He liked things to go smoothly in his court,” Roothman said, noting Gower loved the mountains in the area.
He added he was courteous and friendly, and feels this will leave a huge gap in criminal law in the Yukon.
Shayne Fairman, a longtime Whitehorse lawyer, told the Star this is a tragic day for both the Gower family and the territory’s legal community.
“He was an outstanding lawyer and an outstanding judge,” Fairman said.
He added Gower was an avid member of the local theatre community and participated in the production 12 Angry Jurors (based on the play 12 Angry Men).
Fairman said it will be hard to imagine Gower not presiding over the Supreme Court.
“He’ll be missed,” Fairman added.
The Yukon Department of Justice shared a short biography on Gower.
He was born in South Africa but raised in Innisfail, Alta.
He received a Bachelor of Science from the University of Alberta in 1978 and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Saskatchewan in 1984.
He also earned a certificate from the advanced programs in psychology in 1981 during his studies in Saskatchewan.
Gower began his legal career in Yellowknife in 1985, before being called to the Yukon Bar in 1991. He was a partner at Miller Thomson LLP, where he focused on criminal, civil and administrative law.
The late justice served as president of the territory’s law society from 1999 to 2002. He was also the president of the Yukon’s branch of the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) from 1994 to 1995.
He went on to chair the CBA’s National Legal Aid Liaison Committee from 1995 to 1997, eventually serving as a legal columnist for CBC North’s Yukon Morning show between 1998 and 1999.
After his appointment, Gower was the director for the Yukon, N.W.T. and Nunavut on the Canadian Superior Court Judges Association board of directors since 2006.
He was a member of this council since 2004.
He served as the chair of the Minister’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Appointments for Yukon between November 2006 to October 2008, and was the contact judge for the territory for the Canadian Network of Contact Judges.
Since 2006, he was a member of the Judicial Council for the Territorial Court of Yukon.