Beverley McLachlin: The Right Honourable Bestseller

What comes after a distinguished legal career? How about a promising literary retirement?

By Peter Feniak

Photo: © SCC/Roy Grogan.

The longest-serving Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in the country’s history is now a retired judge—and a bestselling novelist.

After 28 years in Canada’s highest court—17 as our much-admired Chief Jurist—Beverley McLachlin announced her retirement in 2017 and signed her last official document in June 2018, a month after the publication of her first novel, Full Disclosure (Simon & Schuster Canada). The fast-paced, entertaining legal thriller is set in the courts, streets, and lofty mansions of today’s Vancouver. She’s had a rich career, but with Full Disclosure, McLachlin fulfilled a lifelong dream.

“It’s amazed me,” she says of rediscovering herself as a novelist. “I had started to try to write a novel like this—very, very different but with the same main protagonist—before I went on the bench in the late ’70s. And I never finished it. And then I became a judge. So I just put it out of my life.”

As her time on the Supreme Court neared its end, McLachlin picked up the thread again:

“I didn’t go back to it until I was a few months from retiring and then I said, Well, this might be interesting; at least I’ll get it out of my system, and then I can move on. So I started getting up at five in the morning. I got it going. And then I found that I was writing on weekends, and on vacations, and then in the summer, and whenever I got a spare moment on a plane. Finally I got 100,000 words or something—and there you are.”

The novel’s success “surpasses my wildest dreams,” she says. “When I penned this little manuscript, I thought it was presumptuous to think it would ever get published. And when it was published, I thought, It’ll never make the bestseller list, but it’s been there for weeks, so I’m thrilled.”

During McLachlin’s time as Chief Justice, Canada’s nine-member Supreme Court wrestled with exacting constitutional cases, with big-picture issues such as assisted dying, prostitution, the rights of Indigenous Canadians, and the crucial separation between Parliament and the court. McLachlin was known as a consensus-builder and as a jurist who wanted Canadians to better know and understand the country’s highest court. Now, with Full Disclosure, her focus is on criminal court—and a case of murder.

Flawed, But Not Dysfunctional
The novel’s central figure and narrative voice is a driven criminal justice lawyer named Jilly Truitt. Raised in foster homes, struggling in a personal relationship, and with a “dropped out” period of drugs and negativity in her past, Truitt has a chip or two on her shoulder. But she also has a fierce determination to fight for her clients, including a street kid who claims self-defence in a drug-deal shootout, and an aristocratic Vancouver billionaire, a suspect in the brutal murder of his wife. Truitt and her small law firm jump into both cases under the baleful eye of a crusty Crown prosecutor and a stern judge or two. It’s entertaining to try to read between the lines for the opinions of one of Canada’s most admired legal minds. McLachlin discourages that. Lawyer Jilly Truitt, the former Chief Justice says, “just kind of emerged.

“I started with the idea that I wanted to write a strong female character, obviously flawed, but not dysfunctional, a strong heroine who did her stuff, appeared in court, did a great job, looked very strong from the outside, but of course had a lot of struggles under the surface that are not so simple.”

McLachlin writes, in Truitt’s voice: “It looks easy, what lawyers do—sitting in soft chairs, making notes and noises from time to time—but that’s an illusion. Tension, concentration, the uncertain interval between question and answer all take their toll. The static in the back of my mind doesn’t help either.”

The Toronto Star’s Judith Timson praises McLachlin’s “depictions of the life of a female lawyer—brutally long hours, all-consuming cases, and lonely glasses of white wine…with takeout dinner at the end of the day.”

Jilly Truitt struggles with the system and laments that she’s in “too deep,” too invested personally in her most important case. It makes for good drama. In conversation, McLachlin calmly warns that drama can be dangerous:

“I think that’s a part of her character. I’m writing what she’s feeling. She’s very conflicted. She’s devoted her professional life to the system, but sometimes what it does, what it could do, causes her to wonder.”

The novel’s opening lines set that tone: “What do you do when your client goes to jail? You do what you can, then forget.

“I look down the long corridor of the detention centre and wonder how it will be this time.

“The guard, a burly man in a uniform, spies me at the end of the hallway. A shadow crosses his hardened features. He doesn’t like lawyers, particularly women lawyers with saucy haircuts and eyes that refuse to look down or away. The steel door behind him opens, a grating sound of metal on metal, and my client approaches.”

McLachlin says, “It’s something that often happens to lawyers and even judges as they go about their work: they’re sworn to uphold the law and they do, but they reflect on the consequences of that sometimes and whether the system has worked as well as it should. That’s all natural. Every lawyer has these struggles. I did myself when I was a young lawyer. But you told yourself, ‘Look, this is a job, and I’ve got to do my best, but I’ve got to move on, too.’ Everybody is entitled to a fair trial, having a lawyer defend them—that’s part of our constitution, part of our process.

“Democracy is a complex affair. You simply have to have courts there to resolve the various, not only legal issues that arise in the course of applying the law, as would be the case in any democracy, but also the constitutional issues, be they division of powers or interpreting the fundamental rights and obligations set out in the charter. So you could not conceive of a functioning Canadian democracy without the court—without a strong and independent court.”

A lifetime of intense focus in courtrooms, McLachlin says, has stocked her writer’s mind. The novel’s chapters are short, the plot, fast-moving, and her creation of settings and use of dialogue is impressive. Following the good reviews and encouragement, she says, “I didn’t know whether I could do it or not. Dialogue can be very difficult. I was really glad to hear people say I had a good ear.

“As a judge, you have to be a listener; that’s our job. You have to listen to what the lawyers say, the witnesses say. I’ve been trained to do it. And in my legal career, both as a practitioner and later on as a judge, I saw so many different people coming before me. It was a great privilege. You see a lot of humanity. So I had a lot in my head.”

And for those who wonder where this writer’s inspiration began, her novel’s dedication makes it clear: “To my mother, who taught me to love stories.”

A Rich Life of the Imagination
The eldest of five children, McLachlin was born in September 1943 and grew up in a busy, active family outside the town of Pincher Creek, in the far southwestern corner of Alberta. (The town’s name comes from the “pincers”—used to trim horses’ hooves—found by the Northwest Mounted Police in 1874 among the tools at the bottom of the local creek.) Her first home was a log house: no electricity, no running water.

Her parents, Ernest and Eleanora Gietz, were hard-working, devout members of the Pentecostal Church. They ran a ranch and a small sawmill that brought people from all around to visit, talk, and saw planks. “Everybody would come,” she remembers, “and there was a lot going on, general commerce. It was a pretty diverse community, when you think back. A lot of people had to get along and live together. And there was a basic respect, I think. That was an important part of my formation.”

Growing up far from the larger world (Lethbridge, the nearest large community, is 100 kilometres—60 miles—to the east of Pincher Creek), young Beverley Gietz had a deep curiosity. “It seemed to me when I was young,” she says, “the whole world was out there; there were all these people over the millennia who had thought about things and written wonderful things, great music and all of this. And I was very hungry to just explore more.”

She consumed the books in the Pincher Creek Municipal Library and treasured time with her mother, who, she remembers, dreamed of being a writer and “was always telling stories, reading stories, talking about the books she’d read as a girl—all the Lucy Maud Montgomery books. She lived a rich life of the imagination through fiction.” The family’s strict moral values, she smiles, “never seemed to stop my mother from reading. Sometimes my father seemed to think that we were a bit frivolous—always with our heads in a book—but he was up against forces that were stronger than even him. We just kept reading.”

She also remembers the remote world of her childhood as one with a kind of special tolerance. “There were eccentric people, people who had dropped out of other things who came through our ranch and sawmill who would stay for a while, work for a while, move on. And my parents welcomed them. You weren’t ruled out because you were a different ethnicity or a different race or you were a bit ‘loony,’ as people would then say, with some rather eccentric ideas about the world. Provided you conducted yourself reasonably, the margins were pretty generous. You were accepted.”

As Chief Justice, McLachlin did careful work interpreting Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, especially concerning Canada’s Indigenous people. “Thank goodness we’ve moved on, but the Peigan people, living only nine miles [15 kilometres] from the town, were separate and apart,” she says. “It was in my final year of school that we had the first two students come from the reserve. I got to know them in that classroom situation, but my father and my mother employed and worked with people from the Peigan reserve. I had more knowledge of our Indigenous brothers and sisters than a lot of people might have.”

Finishing school in Pincher Creek, McLachlin remembers, “I was hungry to just explore more, to understand more of our civilization and the world. For me it was very, very important. Fortunately, I was able to get scholarships that allowed me to do it.”

She arrived at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and was soon drawn to the study of philosophy, appreciating in particular its laws of logic and argument. She went on to a master’s degree in philosophy and a law degree, graduating first in her class. She was called to the Alberta bar in 1969.

At university, she also met and married Rory McLachlin, a biologist. After moving to Fort St. John with her husband in 1971, she joined the bar in British Columbia. Relocating to Vancouver, she practised law until 1975, and then, after the birth of her son, Angus, in 1976, began teaching law at the University of British Columbia.

Appointed to County Court in Vancouver in 1981, as the National Post once put it, she “rose like a helium balloon through the judicial ranks,” to the Court of Appeal of BC’s Supreme Court. In 1988, she was named Chief Justice of BC’s Supreme Court. That same year, her husband died of cancer.

A year later, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, needing to find a new justice for the Supreme Court, looked west. He chose the 45-year-old McLachlin to move to Ottawa. She spent 11 years as “one of nine” before Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made her the 17th Chief Justice of Canada; she was the first woman appointed to the post.

McLachlin’s official retirement on December 15, 2017, occasioned tributes across the country. At a gala celebration in Ottawa, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson praised McLachlin’s “steel trap mind” and her “remarkable human touch.” The Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt called her “a rare figure in Canada, someone whose esteem and reputation have only grown with her years at the top of a national institution.” A tribute dinner is also planned in Pincher Creek, where she’s known as Bev.

Finding New Things to Do
Full Disclosure signals McLachlin’s moving on. Long a private person, she offers personal tributes in an acknowledgements page in the novel. After thanking her editors and agent, McLachlin offers her family “enormous and abiding gratitude.” She thanks her husband, Frank McArdle, a lawyer whom she married in 1992, for the “love and unfailing support [that] made this book possible” and pays tribute “to my son, Angus McLachlin, and sister, Judi Dalling, for making me believe I could write it.”

Since retirement, she has been appointed to Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal and in June was sworn in as the new honorary captain (Navy) of the Canadian Armed Forces’ Office of the Judge Advocate General. Like many recent retirees, she is sorting things out and looking ahead.

“We’re just working all of this out. It’s a process we have to work through. For years, it was coming in and spending all day in the office. It’ll be finding new things to do at home now. We’ll see where we end up.”

Ottawa is home for now, though there’s also a small condo in her beloved Vancouver and, she adds with enthusiasm, “I love Alberta and I’d love to be able to spend more time there. I always felt fortunate growing up amidst so much beauty.”

She remains disciplined, ready for life, and still blessed with curiosity. “I like to get up, take my dog for a half-hour walk in the park, get a cup of tea, and move on with my day, whatever it might be.”

“I don’t think I’m excessively fixated on it,” she smiles, “but I love being active. I walk probably an hour a day. I keep myself busy, I do a little yoga, I try to eat well and live well—nothing to excess. And I guess I’ve been very fortunate in my health.”

Will her memoirs be next? Another Jilly Truitt case? McLachlin says she knows one thing for certain: “I’m sure I’ll continue to do writing.”