Mary John Batten

Mary John Batten (née Fodchuk), lawyer, politician, justice and chief justice of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench (born 30 August 1921 in Sifton, MB; died 9 October 2015). Mary John Batten was the first Ukrainian Canadian woman elected to a Canadian legislature. She served as an MLA in Saskatchewan from 1956 until 1964. That year, she became the first woman to be appointed as a federal judge in Saskatchewan, and only the second in Canada. In 1983, she became Saskatchewan’s first female chief justice. She also chaired a Saskatchewan royal commission. She retired from the bench in 1989.

Mary John Batten (née Fodchuk), lawyer, politician, justice and chief justice of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench (born 30 August 1921 in Sifton, MB; died 9 October 2015). Mary John Batten was the first Ukrainian Canadian woman elected to a Canadian legislature. She served as an MLA in Saskatchewan from 1956 until 1964. That year, she became the first woman to be appointed as a federal judge in Saskatchewan, and only the second in Canada. In 1983, she became Saskatchewan’s first female chief justice. She also chaired a Saskatchewan royal commission. She retired from the bench in 1989.

Early Years

Mary Fodchuk was born in Sifton, Manitoba, a small community within the Rural Municipality of Dauphin, northwest of Winnipeg. Founded in 1896, it was one of Canada’s first Ukrainian settlements. Batten’s parents, John and Anna Fodchuk, were of Ukrainian descent. Mary grew up with two younger siblings: her sister, Usteen, who tragically drowned in 1964, and her brother, Dymytry (“Jim”). Mary’s mother, Anna, also died in a tragic accident; she was hit by a car while crossing a highway in 1962.

When she was a child, her family moved to Saskatchewan. She attended school in the tiny towns of Calder and Ituna and then at Sacred Heart Academy in Regina, where she graduated in 1938. She then attended the University of Saskatchewan, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1941 and a law degree in 1943. She articled at the Prince Albert law firm of future prime minister John Diefenbaker and was accepted to the bar in 1944. At that time, there were only five female lawyers in Saskatchewan.

From 1944 to 1948, she practiced with the firm of Brown, Thompson and Davidson. She married fellow lawyer M.C.R. Batten in 1946. They both became partners in Batten Fodchuk and Batten. They operated out of Wadena in 1948–49 before settling in Humboldt in 1949. Mary and M.C.R. had four children: Justine, Dick, Trish and Jyll. Mary was also actively involved in community events and organizations.

First Term in Office

Despite her connection to John Diefenbaker — a prominent Conservative Party member who soon became the federal leader — Mary Batten was nominated to represent the Saskatchewan Liberal Party in the riding of Humboldt in November 1955. She then ran for a seat in the provincial legislature in the election on 20 June 1956. It was a tough campaign that she did not expect to win. The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was currently in power and she was running against cabinet minister Joseph Burton. Led by premier Tommy Douglas, the CCF was returned to power. The Liberals, led by Alexander “Hammy” McDonald, continued as the official opposition. Batten narrowly won her seat, earning 3,223 votes to Burton’s 3,056. Her victory made her the first Ukrainian Canadian women in Canada to be elected to a provincial legislature.

The only lawyer in the Liberal’s 14-member caucus (as well as the only woman), Batten was given the high-profile role of opposition justice critic. She served as a legal advisor to Liberal caucus members when they were considering legislation. She was also among the leaders of a caucus revolt against McDonald that resulted in a 1959 convention in which Ross Thatcher became party leader.

Second Term

On 8 June 1960, Saskatchewan voters went to the polls. The CCF again formed the government, but Batten was re-elected in her riding. She increased her margin of victory, earning 3,939 votes to defeat her second place CCF rival, George Thomas, who won 2,725.

Batten continued as the opposition justice critic and was a highly effective parliamentarian. A favored tactic was to bait an MLA into a particular line of discussion by pretending to be naive and not understanding the issue. (A line from her funeral program described her as having “the face of an angel and a tongue like a viper.”) She enhanced her reputation as a skilled political analyst and debater when, in 1961, the legislature passed Bill 56. Saskatchewan lieutenant-governor Frank Bastedo reserved royal assent; that is, he refused to sign it. He claimed it was not in the province’s best interest. Although her party opposed the bill, Batten strenuously objected to Bastedo’s actions, stating that he had not consulted with the federal government and so was acting improperly. She was proven right when the federal government passed an order-in-council to approve the bill.

Also in 1961, Batten called for marriage laws to be amended to protect the rights of women and children during divorce and separation. She advocated strongly for the strengthening of women’s legal rights. (See also Women and the Law.) She was also very active in encouraging women to enter politics and in removing many of the barriers they faced along the way.

Justice Batten

After first winning her seat in 1956, Batten had told reporters, “as soon as my term is finished, I’ll be out of this.” In a 1959 speech, she said that “it is no fun being in politics, but it is worthwhile.” In May 1963, Batten announced that she would not run for a third term, noting that the sacrifices required by her family were too great.

On 30 May 1964, she accepted a federal appointment from Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to serve as a judge on the District Court (which merged into the Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan in 1981). The court is the province’s superior trial court and hears criminal and civil cases. Batten was appointed to the Saskatoon district, though she also heard cases in other judicial centres. She was the first woman to serve as a federal judge in Saskatchewan, and only the second woman in Canada.

Other Activities

In June 1966, Justice Batten was appointed by the provincial government to chair a special committee on new legislation for the regulation of accountants. That work was completed in early 1967. In December 1966, the governments of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba announced a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the high cost of living. A commissioner was appointed from each province and Batten represented Saskatchewan. The commission’s official name was the Royal Commission on Consumer Problems and Inflation; but because Batten served as chair, it is commonly referred to as the Batten Commission. Its final report was submitted in 1968.

Chief Justice of Saskatchewan

On 7 July 1983, Batten was sworn in by her predecessor Frederick W. Johnston to serve as Saskatchewan’s Chief Justice for the Court of the Queen’s Bench. She was the first woman to hold that position, which oversees the judges appointed to the province’s judicial centres. Batten retired in 1989 after 26 years of service on the court. She died on 9 October 2015.

Community Involvement

Mary John Batten had a reputation for being very involved in her community, dating back to her days practicing law in Humboldt. She volunteered for many organizations, including the Vanier Institute of the Family and Saskatoon’s Regional Psychiatric Centre. She also served on the Canadian Consumer Council and the Saskatchewan Science Council.

See also Ukrainian Canadians; Women and the Law; 30 Notable Women’s Rights Activists in Canada.