Last Tuesday, staff and students welcomed Canadian jurist and author Beverley McLachlin to the University of Toronto Mississauga. The UTM Department of Philosophy had invited McLachlin, to celebrate her new memoir, Truth Be Told: My Journey Through Life and the Law. Audience members were excited to hear McLachlin’s accounts of her career and private life along with her thoughts on Canadian democracy and the rule of law.
As described in her introduction given by the philosophy department, McLachlin was the first female Chief Justice of Canada, the highest-ranking judge in the Canadian court system. McLachlin was also the longest serving Chief Justice in Canadian history, having served in the position from January 2000 to December 2017. Prior to her appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada, McLachlin practiced law and was an associate professor and professor with tenure at the University of British Columbia.
Following a warm welcome to the front, McLachlin recalled her court days and how she spent several late nights trying to make a decision or stand up to scrutiny. She highlighted the essence of philosophy, saying that “we sense things, we experience things, and we feel things. Philosophy goes beyond sensing, experiencing and feeling as [it explores the] why [behind] what’s going on.” McLachlin emphasized the questioning nature of philosophy and related, among other anecdotes, how she as a child used to explore linguistic philosophy by wondering why the shapes on a paper form words.
McLachlin mentioned that growing up in a remote town in Alberta, the Bible was her first philosophy book even though she was unaware of it at the time. At her house, the Bible was highly important and she used to read about people’s behavior and how God rewarded or punished those who misbehaved.
At a very early age, McLachlin found herself confronting the biggest question of all: “What is the nature of truth?” She related to the audience how her family would sit at the table after dinner, discuss the daily news, and frequently debate. McLachlin describes the debates not as arguments, but rather “a way of deepening our understanding and getting close to that slippery thing that has fascinated me since childhood: the truth.”
McLachlin furthermore recalled how she struggled to put her thoughts on the paper without receiving comments such as “too many big words” and “what are you trying to say anyway?” She stated that philosophy saved her as it made her feel at home and enabled her to feel comfortable asking questions. She even mentioned how her parents disapproved of her choice of philosophy as a major and encouraged her to consider math or science. However, McLachlin was confident that she was in love with philosophy.
The former Chief Justice decided to give law a try following the completion of her Bachelor’s degree. For her, the similarities between law and philosophy led to the discovery of the philosophy of law. McLachlin highlighted how interpreting the Canadian Charter for over four decades allowed her to be involved in the best philosophy she could have ever possibly imagined. As the Chief Justice, she faced some of the most profound questions in Canadian society.
“I continue to write and speak on social and moral issues,’’ she says. Even in retirement, philosophy remains a large part of her life. McLachlin ended her speech by commenting on her new memoir: “Permit me to leave you with this wish [that] wherever your path may take you, my philosophy will be at your side and I, for one, believe it will lead you down wonderful paths.”
Following her speech, the audience received a chance to ask her questions. When asked about the role the Bible played in her journey, McLachlin said that the Bible taught her about morality and moral debates. She also responded to a question regarding freedom of speech by saying that expression should only be limited if it is harmful or it puts others at risk. Audience members also were able to get their memoirs signed by McLachlin herself and many members left inspired by the former Chief Justice and her illustrious career.