Hall, Emmett (Obituary)

Like so many people before and after them, Emmett Hall's parents moved to Western Canada seeking a better life for their young family. Descended from generations of impoverished Irish farmers who had settled near the village of St-Colomban, 40 km northwest of Montreal, the Halls were lured to Saskatchewan in 1910 by the promise of cheap land and by the plans, announced a year earlier, for a provincial university in Saskatoon. And it was there, on the University of Saskatchewan campus, that Emmett, the fourth of 11 children, embarked on a legal career that would eventually take him to a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada and to a critical role as an adviser to premiers and prime ministers on issues ranging from medicare to education and railway transportation. Yet through it all, Hall, who died last week in Saskatoon at the age of 96, remained a true son of Saskatchewan - a province that indelibly shaped the man who, in turn, helped to shape the modern face of Canada.

Although Saskatchewan was booming when Hall moved west, by the time he graduated from law school in 1922 - the same year that he married Isabel Parker, a vivacious legal stenographer from Humboldt, Sask. - the province was already mired in a pattern of depression and drought that would last until the Second World War. In an interview with Maclean's last week, former governor general Ramon Hnatyshyn, a close friend of Hall's, said that the experience of those years helped forge in Hall an acute social conscience. "They were tough times," said Hnatyshyn. "You had a chance to see real deprivation and the importance of helping your fellow citizen."

Hall's devotion to improving the common good - also fed by a quiet Catholicism that he practised his entire life - took on national prominence in 1961 when then-prime minister John Diefenbaker asked his former law school chum to chair a royal commission on how health services should be financed. Diefenbaker, who first led the Conservatives to victory in 1957, had already appointed Hall as a chief justice of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench that same year and in 1961 to the same position on the provincial Court of Appeal; in 1963, he elevated Hall to the Supreme Court of Canada. His choice of a fellow Tory to head the royal commission initially cheered Canada's medical establishment, which had pressed for the inquiry in an effort to stave off the state-sponsored approach to medicare then being pioneered by Saskatchewan's popular socialist premier, Tommy Douglas. They were sorely disappointed: in 1964, Hall delivered a report to the new Liberal government in Ottawa calling for a system far more radical than even Douglas had proposed, including free dental coverage for schoolchildren and welfare recipients and free prescription glasses and drugs for the needy and elderly. "The only thing more expensive than good health care," he argued, "is no health care."

The Liberals balked at the potential costs of implementing all of Hall's ambitious recommendations. But they did enshrine its core - government-paid health insurance for all Canadians - in legislation that took effect in July, 1968. Many Canadians soon began to consider the program an inalienable right, and Hall proudly wore the moniker "the father of medicare."

While his role in championing medicare may prove his most lasting legacy, Hall demonstrated an uncanny knack during the course of a 70-year career to be at the centre of controversy. In 1935, he agreed to defend many of the protesters in the infamous Regina Riot, where police clashed violently with some 1,600 unemployed men who were marching from Vancouver to Ottawa. In the public view, the trekkers were considered a band of dangerous Bolsheviks. But Hall was convinced that the police had provoked the confrontation and he managed to quash many, though not all, of the rioting charges. For his pains, many of Hall's establishment friends passed him by on the street and stopped inviting him for dinner.

Hall again tilted at conventional wisdom when he co-chaired, along with Ontario school principal Lloyd Dennis, an inquiry into the province's education system. The Hall-Dennis report, released in 1968, pushed for sweeping reforms, including the abolition of grades, homework and formal exams. Eagerly embraced by advocates of so-called child-centred schooling, the report is still blamed by its critics for a serious erosion in educational standards.

His close friends, including Hnatyshyn, say that the death of his wife in 1981 took a heavy toll on Hall, who had retired from the Supreme Court eight years earlier. But he remained close to his two children - John, a professor at Boston's Harvard Medical School, and Marian Wedge, a Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench judge - and a doting patriarch to his 12 grandchildren and eight great-grand-children. In 1993, Hall's health finally failed him when he suffered a stroke that confined him to a wheelchair. But up until then, he remained remarkably active, chairing a series of public inquiries and mediating several high-profile labor disputes. And he did not hesitate to speak out whenever he felt that his cherished medicare program was under siege. During the 1993 federal election, for example, he harshly criticized Reform party Leader Preston Manning for advocating user fees and giving unfettered control over health care to the provinces. Such moves, he argued, would cripple poorer provinces and lead to the end of universal medicare.

Fifteen years ago, as an 81-year-old Hall was wrapping up a second federal review of medicare, a reporter asked him when he planned to pack it in. "When they bury me," he replied. They did so last week, following a service at Saskatoon's St. Paul's Cathedral, the same church where the young Emmett once served as an altar boy. His work may finally be finished, but Canadians will continue to enjoy the fruits of his labors for generations to come.

Maclean's November 27, 1995