There will be an award established to honour the memory and contributions made to the legal community by Yukon Supreme Court Justice Leigh Gower, who died in late October 2018.
“It is to be presented to a resident member of the Yukon bar on criteria yet to be established,” said Rick Buchan, on behalf of the Canadian Bar Association and Law Society of Yukon.
He was speaking to a crowd of at least 50 gathered at the Whitehorse courthouse Wednesday afternoon.
While the decision has not yet been finalized, Buchan said, the eligibility and criteria “are intended to reflect the values and community contributions consistent with those Leigh upheld during his lifetime.”
He explained that will happen after consultation with Gower’s wife, Barb, and his family, seated just steps away from him yesterday afternoon. The justice, in his early 60s, died from a medical complication.
The announcement came toward the latter half of a special court sitting in memory of the late judge, who had held the role since October 2003. It was a time some remembered as a fond one preceding the loss of a respected colleague at the bar.
But what was not lost on those like Buchan was that was offset by the gain of a diligent, meticulous justice who would now grace the benches of the territory.
Smiling and glancing occasionally at Gower’s family, Buchan recalled one specific example that showed just how skilled Gower was.
“I recall one occasion when he ventured into my yard of civil litigation practice,” Buchan said, “after somehow getting my client to give testimony on the stand that did not coincide with what I was told beforehand.”
As laughter filled the room, the event was as much a recap of Gower’s legal and judicial work as it was a sharing of light-hearted interactions and quirks – coming from those who knew him over three decades and three territories.
“This is a unique and exceptional northern legal career and judicial career,” said Ron Veale, Chief Justice of the Yukon Supreme Court.
Noting Gower had worked in all three northern jurisdictions, he offered some anecdotes about whom he had spent more than a decade working with and sharing an office beside.
“We knew a lot more about each other than maybe we should have,” Veale laughed, noting Gower’s affinity with his choice of ride (a Harley-Davidson motorcycle) becoming a bit of a trademark at the courthouse at one point.
Veale, himself a judge in the territory for decades, recalled Gower’s active lifestyle filled with canoeing, skiing and karate – and despite having a playful side, he still took his work seriously.
“The job of a judge is sometimes a lonely one – sometimes self-imposed but sometimes imposed because of the nature of the job,” Veale said.
“But I want to say in the circumstances of being a judge, family love and support are critical,” he added, referencing those who had come from areas like Australia, South Africa (where Gower was born), England and southern areas of the country for the sitting.
Quoting from some of Gower’s remarks during his swearing in about 15 years ago, Veale said it reminded him of the spirituality the late justice practiced.
“‘I am strengthened by the notion that good judgment is usually the result of previous experiences exercising bad judgment,’” Veale read, smiling that the late justice also
mentioned zen philosophy of beginner’s mind that would come in handy during his service in office.
Gower also acted in local theatre productions, an interest that perhaps grew from his family after being raised by his grandparents when he immigrated to Canada from Durban, South Africa.
Describing Gower’s parents as “bohemian,” Barb noted there were a few “twists and turns along the way” after he did his bachelor’s degree, eventually landing him in law
school in Saskatchewan.
While there was some flexibility (he did a bachelors of science with a minor in fine arts before turning to law), Gower was determined in not practising law in a big city, Barb
Eventually making his way to Yellowknife, he would then sink his teeth and cement his interest in the field. One of those along for the ride and a long-time family friend was
Madam Justice Susan Cooper with the Supreme Court of Nunavut.
“What many of us didn’t know was in the early days, Leigh had his doubts about a legal career,” she said.
But after being allowed a behind-the-scenes look at the work done by lawyers and their impact on those who came before the courts, that would change.
“It was at that point he decided that maybe there was something to this legal thing after all – and aren’t we glad he did,” she smiled.
For others, what stood out about him was the pride he took in practising in the North.
“Despite the heavy workload of a Yukon judge, his judgments were always timely and comprehensive,” said Justice Harvey Groberman with the territory’s court of appeal, who met Gower more than a decade ago.
“He was a consummate actor and a consummate realist. I suppose that’s what you would anticipate from a person who’s born in South Africa and as much as anyone I know,
exemplifies the northern spirit.”
Another justice, this time from B.C.’s Supreme Court, recalled Gower as a stylish colleague.
“In a way, we consider him an honourary member of our court,” said Madam Justice Miriam Maisonville, adding Gower would often join them on court conferences and French language sessions.
He was co-operative, yet represented the territory and North proudly, donning the gold and purple sash with confidence (gold to symbolize the gold rush and purple for
His pride for the North was perhaps best on full display when Gower advocated for representation at the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, a group that is the national co-ordinating body of the country’s 14 law societies.
“Up until that board, territories were represented by a southern board member,” Cooper explained, noting that the time of transition meant the federation would eventually have
a council member from each territory.
That allowed those like current Yukon Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee to be the first northerner to become president of the federation in 2006, with the N.W.T.’s Sheila
MacPherson wrapping up her presidency in 2017-2018.
“That high-profile northern leadership at a national level is due in no small part to Leigh’s vision all those years ago,” Cooper said.
What stuck with the Supreme Court of N.W.T.’s Justice Shannon Smallwood was Gower’s ability to entertain – an ode to his theatrical past and interest.
“I often felt I gained more from the experience than I probably returned,” she said, recalling her brief interactions with him since she was appointed to the bench in 2011.
He tended to make a lasting impression on everybody he met, including Smallwood’s own daughter at an Alberta judges’ event.
Hearing a whistling noise between speeches, she recalled turning around to see “Leigh showing my daughter how to make music using her water glass.
“So we have Leigh now to thank for the noise she regularly makes around the dinner table,” she smiled.
Nodding, John Phelps agreed his connection to family was admirable. The newly-minted deputy minister for the territory’s justice department met Gower when he was working with Barb at a local firm.
Calling him a wonderful advisor, Phelps said Gower was always quick to offer his insights to a young lawyer like himself - something that came in handy especially when he was considering making the jump from private practice to the Crown’s office for prosecutions.
“That conversation was very personal, it was very meaningful - we talked at length about opportunities ahead.
“It was a very sincere conversation that helped me make that decision,” he smiled.
Phelps was also present on behalf of McPhee, who prepared a speech about the impact the late justice had on her.
One of the more important lessons he shared, she wrote, was maintaining a pokerface that was unrivaled.
“You simply couldn’t know what he was thinking about what you were saying,” McPhee said, noting his tireless efforts and work ethic was unmatched. It may have been in part what often allowed him to beat others to the office at 7 a.m. and render 492 written judgements (ranging from 20 to 150 pages) in the span of 15 years.
“He never did anything halfway, whether it was (issuing) a judgement or sharing time with his family,” McPhee wrote.
The minister’s colleague, Nils Clarke, was the one-time director of the Yukon Legal Aid Society after working with Gower, and is now the speaker of the Yukon Legislative
Both men came to the Yukon to practise law around the same time, eventually working together at local firm Preston, Willis and Leitch. Clarke was a defence lawyer when
Gower was a Crown agent, and Clarke eventually appeared before him as a judge too.
He recalled getting news of his colleague’s passing just 15 minutes away from resuming the legislative assembly’s afternoon sitting last October, but was glad to have
cherished memories like the late justice’s playful attitude.
“Leigh left us too soon, and we are still processing and mourning his loss,” Clarke said.
Gower’s quiet nature at work didn’t come without its playful moments, said territorial court Justice Peter Chisholm.
“It is common knowledge that Leigh was quiet and reserved at work,” he said, recalling an instance where Gower gifted him a book titled Ethical Principles for Judges.
“I immediately wondered if he was trying to tell me something about my character,” Chisholm laughed, adding that in retrospect, it was a sign of Gower trying to lend a helping hand in an area he deeply valued.
Echoing this, Veale remained in awe of Gower’s more than 400 decisions, explaining that included long and comprehensive ones like cases from the Ross River area.
“He was known as a meticulous and hardworking judgment writer – that is really his true legacy.
“He succeeded enormously well in being an excellent judge.”
Among the others on hand at yesterday’s special sitting were Justices Michael Cozens, Karen Ruddy, John Faulkner, Suzanne Duncan and Edith Campbell.
Two courtrooms were also full of members of the public and long-time friends or colleagues of Gower.