John Sopinka (Obituary)

During the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, two Canadians who had become lost on the city’s streets set off in search of a ride. Rounding a corner, they spotted a parked and empty bus, the keys in the ignition.

Sopinka, John

During the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, two Canadians who had become lost on the city's streets set off in search of a ride. Rounding a corner, they spotted a parked and empty bus, the keys in the ignition. "John, if you can drive that thing," said Supreme Court of Canada Justice Willard Estey, "let's go home." So John Sopinka, one of the nation's top trial lawyers, got behind the wheel and they set off for their rented quarters. "We'd only gone about a hundred yards when we saw the driver running after us, puffing and hollering," says Estey, who retired from the bench in 1988 and now practises law in Toronto. "He was so glad to get his bus back that he didn't beat us up and what's more, showed us how to get home." Estey's story was one of the fond reminiscences and tributes that circulated last week in a legal profession shocked by the death on Nov. 24 of Justice John Sopinka, Estey's successor on the Supreme Court. Said London, Ont., trial counsel Earl Cherniak: "He was a hell of a lawyer."

The third Supreme Court judge to die in office in the past 13 years - Chief Justice Bora Laskin (1984) and Julien Chouinard (1987) were the others - Sopinka had been diagnosed with a rare blood disorder about six weeks ago, but had continued working while undergoing treatment. His death at 64, three days after entering Ottawa Civic Hospital, stunned judges and lawyers long familiar with Sopinka's competence on the bench and his ferocity on the squash court. "If there was one person that I thought would live to be 95 or 100, it was him," said Toronto lawyer Peter Howard, who worked for Sopinka as an articling student in 1978.

Two days after Sopinka died, his coffin was taken to the granite-walled rotunda of the Supreme Court building overlooking the Ottawa River. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, a visibly shaken Chief Justice Antonio Lamer and Health Minister Allan Rock, who once studied law under Sopinka in Toronto, were among the more than 400 people who filed past the flag-draped casket. At one end, a bouquet of tiger lilies, the provincial flower of Saskatchewan, acknowledged Sopinka's Ukrainian roots in the crossroads farming hamlet of Broderick, 80 km south of Saskatoon. Lamer, his voice breaking, said the judges would miss their colleague's "blend of profound intelligence, infinite compassion and instinct for justice."

But Sopinka displayed other attributes as well. In his 28-year law practice, he was a relentless, committed and driven adversary (who found the time to become an accomplished violinist - "concert music, not barn-dance," says Estey). Among those present at last week's ceremony was Susan Pine who, as Susan Nelles, was a suspect in the deaths of several babies at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto in 1980 and 1981. She was formally charged with murder, but the charges were dropped in 1982. Two years later, Sopinka represented her before an Ontario government-ordered inquiry into the deaths. Among its conclusions: police were justified in arresting Nelles, but there had never been enough evidence to put her on trial.

Sopinka's combativeness had long been apparent. He was a halfback on the University of Toronto's Varsity Blues football team that won the 1954 intercollegiate championship, a defensive back with the CFL Toronto Argonauts from 1955 to 1957 and the Montreal Alouettes the following year. And he proved to be as tough in the courtroom as he had been on the football field. "He was the most competitive person on the face of the earth - he had to outwork, outperform and out-tactic," says Howard. "He couldn't play squash for fun; he had to beat you. But I liked him - he was tremendously loyal to the people who worked for him." Opponents were a different matter. "If he could find a way to beat you within the rules," Howard adds, "he would do it."

That doggedness, says Estey, chairman of Hockey Canada at the time of the 1984 Winter Games, is why he picked Sopinka for the trip to Sarajevo. The mission: to try to persuade the International Olympic Committee to lift its ban on professional hockey players. (It finally did in 1986.) "He had a real sense of the law and you didn't have to hit him over the head with some legal point to get him to look at it," says Estey. "He was an excellent counsel."

During nearly three decades, many lawyers came to the same conclusion. In the mid-1970s, Saskatoon lawyer Silas Halyk was hired by the Saskatchewan attorney general to prosecute the Bank of Nova Scotia for fraud for the way it handled the assets of a furniture company that had gone bankrupt. Sopinka, hired by the bank, convinced the court to dismiss the charges. "I liked him and I always remember how anxious he was to get out of the courtroom and onto the tennis court," Halyk recalls. "I kind of admired that; as I went for a drink, he'd be off to play tennis. I should have learned to imitate him."

Sopinka was equally respected as a judge. "Once in a while he'd get off on a trip to the moon with some argument," says Estey, "but the court will miss him tremendously when it comes to common sense." Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby says: "They're all pretty bright up there, so to distinguish yourself you really have to be exceptional - and he was exceptional."

Windsor trial lawyer Harvey Strosberg, head of the regulatory Law Society of Upper Canada, was an articling student of Sopinka's in 1969 and had been scheduled to argue a case before him next spring. "He was a mentor to a whole generation of lawyers and we will miss him," Strosberg said. It is a formidable legacy. But then it was created by a formidable man.

Maclean's December 8, 1997