Beverley McLachlin has lived a classic Alberta story. She started out as a girl on a small ranch in the Pincher Creek area, rose through the legal profession, and became chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
It’s a tale of gumption, talent, hard work and success.
Yet McLachlin represents a different kind of story than the ones usually told about this province.
The differences show in her recently published autobiography, Truth Be Told.
Conventional writing about Alberta’s legal history tends to focus on the transfer of control of natural resources and most Crown land from the federal government to the province in 1930. Other developments regarding oil and gas follow.
McLachlin begins with the “Persons Case.” That was the 1927 legal decision that gave women full status as “persons” under the law, making them eligible for things like appointment as judges.
From there, she talks about the forbidding atmosphere that women faced entering into legal careers in the 1960s. She writes about cases affecting women’s rights, the rights of accused persons, and issues like assisted death, and civil rights generally.
And she candidly relates the tough times she had as a teenager. She had a supportive home life but was still often confused and unhappy. Even as she went from one success to another, she worried constantly that she might fail.
She also seems to have been more aware of the Piikani (known at the time as Peigan) reserve near her home and some of its people than of the oil and gas industry. At least, she writes about them more.
This is not the kind of story we usually read about in Alberta. But it is just as solidly grounded in people’s experience.
The book is a well constructed and often remarkable read. It is also plainly intended to inspire new generations, especially young women. McLachlin is telling them that if she can go from a simple life on a small and fairly remote ranch in southwestern Alberta to success in a much larger world, so can they.
The memoirs followed publication a year earlier of Full Disclosure, a crime novel. It was McLachlin’s first attempt at writing fiction, which she apparently wants to continue. The novel is nicely paced and entertaining, although the mystery can be solved early by alert readers. Some decisions made by the lead character, lawyer Jilly Truitt, seem improbable. Some people quite like the book; I thought it was ordinary compared with Truth Be Told.
The latter book also makes an interesting comparison with Which Reminds Me, the memoirs of former federal cabinet minister Mitchell Sharp. He grew up in Winnipeg in the same kind of modest circumstances as McLachlin, although nearly 30 years earlier. But his recollections take his beginnings as a matter of course and conspicuously avoid personal matters. The difference could reflect their emotional makeup, or perhaps the difference between generations. There’s a similar contrast between McLachlin’s autobiography and Remembering, the thought-provoking memoirs of Sharp’s Montreal-born contemporary Eric Kierans.