The Truth about “Truth be Told: My Journey Through Life and the Law” by Beverley McLachlin - A Book Review
The truth is…I really enjoyed this book.
The former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, shares her life story in “Truth be Told”, starting with her small-town roots, to her seat on the bench, her rise to the Supreme Court, and her "retirement". McLachlin tells the story with sincerity and with the clarity of an experienced writer who has kept her audience and the purpose of the book in mind.
Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because I found parts of her story to be very relatable, in particular her childhood experiences in the small town of Pincher Creek, Alberta. I too grew up in the country. The closest village, Mount Pleasant, had a population of, at most, 500 people.
McLachlin speaks fondly of life on the ranch, the wide-open spaces, fresh air, and nature. She also highlights the feelings of isolation and hard work that come with living in the country. (We even had the same chores as children: “Bringing in firewood, washing and drying the dishes, sweeping the floor after every meal, helping outdoors..”)
Speaking of her regular visits to the small-town library, McLachlin states: “The Pincher Creek Municipal Library saved my life. Or so it seems to me now. Would I have survived without it? Probably. Would I have grown to be the person I am without it? Most certainly not.” Like Pincher Creek, my village had a library with a small collection of books housed in the “Women’s Institute Hall”. The librarian would put on summer reading programs for the local country kids. Much like McLachlin, I looked forward to my trips to the library so I could bury my nose in a book (or two or three).
Moving beyond her childhood and Pincher Creek, McLachlin highlights the influence of family and in particular her husband, Rory, who encouraged her to become a lawyer, something she had not considered. She talks about her marriage, her son, her career as a lawyer and a law professor, and the struggles with Rory’s cancer diagnosis and death. McLachlin writes with such honesty I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face. (I happened to be in my hairdresser’s chair when I read about her husband’s passing. My hairdresser was alarmed as she thought she had hurt me.)
On her life as a judge and ultimately the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, McLachlin shares her stories with perhaps a little restraint but with a great respect for the legal profession and the rule of law. If you were looking for some legal gossip, you will be disappointed. A few peripheral stories of human interest with an air of conflict but nothing scandalous here. (Which is understandable.)
McLachlin also balances her personal story with information about the state of Canadian law and important Canadian cases, including insights into Rodriguez v British Columbia (Attorney General), Murdoch v Murdoch, R v Ewanchuk, Carter v (Attorney General), Bedford v Canada, etc. She discusses the criticism she received from several feminist groups for penning the majority decision in R v Seaboyer (which dealt with rape-shield provisions and the Charter). She explained that:
“My personal inclinations could not prevail over the constitutional imperative of maintaining the right to present a full defence. As a judge, my duty was to apply the law and call the case the way I saw it, adding guidelines as to how the law could be amended in conformity with the Charter. Sometimes a judge must make unpopular decisions that may go against her deepest preferences.”
What shines through is that McLachlin loves the law and has a deep respect for it as well as the need for judicial independence (despite some unnecessary criticism on Twitter regarding her judicial independence for her joke about naming her puppy “Harper”).
It was an interesting book and a well-told story of a woman navigating her career. Of course, she discusses some of the sexism she faced but it’s the same frustrating story I’m sure you’ve heard before, so I won’t repeat most of it here. One story that stood out though was when she spoke at a legal conference a few weeks after being appointed to the Supreme Court. She opened her speech by telling the audience what Justice Bertha Wilson told her after she took her place on the bench after signing the oath: “Three down, six to go” (referring to the three women now at the Court – Wilson, L’Heureux-Dube and McLachlin). The next morning there was an op-ed in the paper where the writer wrote: “How dare the new justice suggest that the Supreme Court of Canada should be composed entirely of women.” Interestingly, just last night at the Women's Law Association of Ontario’s 100th Anniversary Gala, Justice Andromache Karakatsanis also referred to Justice Wilson’s quote in her keynote address (this time "Four down, five to go"). I have yet to see any criticism of the Justice’s comments in any newspaper or more importantly, on Twitter. Perhaps we have made some progress.
What also was clear from the book was that McLachlin had many champions in her life, urging her forward, and suggesting the way: her parents, her siblings, colleagues, Rory, her son, and her second husband Frank McArdle. If only all women had the support she had and continues to have.
Not too long ago I came across the handwritten notes that I took on my one and only appearance at the Supreme Court of Canada. I laughed when I read the little notation I made at the top: “Beverley McLachlin said my name!” Although I was not speaking that day, Chief Justice McLachlin announced all counsel present and I was beaming with joy. Despite the fangirling, I am aware she is not perfect, we all make mistakes, we are all learning. However, she has contributed so much to the legal profession, to the law in this country and to Canadians as a whole (much of which I have not mentioned here but you can read about in the book). While her presence at the Supreme Court of Canada is missed, I hope this means she will now have time to write a sequel to her novel, Full Disclosure.
I recommend this book to all lawyers, law students or anyone with an interest in the law or who enjoys autobiographies. You can buy the book in several places, including Indigo or better yet, check out your local independent bookstore.
 Beverley McLachlin, Truth Be Told: My Journey Through Life and the Law, (Toronto: Simon & Schuster Canada, 2019) [Truth]
 Truth at p 38.
 Truth at p 34.
 Truth at p 233.
 Truth at p 201.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of FLEX LEGAL, a network of freelance lawyers.