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Drug Commission Defined Jurist's Career


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Gerald Le Dain, who died last week at 83, was only 44 years old when he was handed the assignment that would make him an improbable counter-culture icon.

Mr. Le Dain was already an accomplished legal scholar and would later serve on Canada's highest courts. But his name will forever be linked to the job he undertook at the behest of the federal government on that May day in 1969.

At the time, Canada was grappling with a new and -- for those in authority -- deeply disturbing phenomenon. Like their peers elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of young Canadians were experimenting with recreational drugs, including marijuana, LSD and speed.

Use of cannabis, in particular, was exploding. In 1966, fewer than 80,000 people in Canada had tried the drug. But by the end of the decade, 10 times that number had used it at least once.

The federal government responded by appointing Mr. Le Dain, then dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, to head a five-person commission of inquiry into the non-medical use of drugs. It was swiftly dubbed the Le Dain commission.

The commission was asked to look at all available knowledge about the non-medical use of "sedative, stimulant, tranquilizing, hallucinogenic and other psychotropic drugs or substances," including their effect on users. It was also directed to report on why such drugs were becoming popular and recommend how the government could address the problem.

The commission held 46 days of public hearings, travelling to 27 cities and 23 university campuses. It heard from 12,000 Canadians, including many young drug users. Between 1970 and 1973, it issued four lengthy reports. Among other things, it called for lighter sentences for most drug offences, treatment for heroin addicts and warnings about the dangers of nicotine and alcohol.

But it was its recommendation to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana that caused the greatest sensation.

The commission concluded that the maximum penalties for cannabis offences were grossly excessive and disproportionate to any harm marijuana's use might cause. Moreover, the number of people being convicted had doubled annually between 1967 and 1971, wreaking havoc with the lives of a growing number of young Canadians.

Even so, the law was being widely flouted, catching only about one per cent of marijuana users. "A law which can only be enforced in a haphazard and accidental manner is an unjust law," the commission declared.

Many of the Le Dain commission's recommendations were too explosive for politicians of the day to embrace. But judges soon started moderating sentences and began giving offenders absolute discharges for simple possession.

Arnold Trebach, founder of the Drug Policy Foundation in the U.S., says the impact of the report was "stunning.

"It was the first in then-recent history to take a thorough scholarly approach to the subject of drug use, particularly dealing with marijuana," Mr. Trebach writes in an appreciation posted online.

Gerald Eric Le Dain was born in Montreal on Nov. 27, 1924. He served as a gunner with the Canadian army from 1943 to 1946, seeing action in Holland and Germany.

While attending Khaki University in England in 1946, he met Cynthia Emily Roy when both were participants in a school debate. They married in 1947, remaining together until her death in 1995.

They had six children -- five daughters and a son -- but their life was marked by tragedy. One daughter, Jacqueline, died in a car accident in 1975. Another, Catherine, succumbed to pneumonia in 1998.

After returning to Canada, the thoroughly bilingual Mr. Le Dain enrolled in McGill University, graduating with a law degree and winning a gold medal in 1949. During the 1950s and early 1960s, he practised law in Montreal, advising Quebec governments on constitutional matters, and taught at McGill.

He became dean of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto in 1967, a position he held for five years.

Simon Fodden, a professor emeritus at Osgoode Hall, recalls Mr. Le Dain as a warm, encouraging and kind colleague in a comment posted at slaw.ca. "He was, too, a man of passions," Mr. Fodden writes. "And accordingly, he had a temper that could flare."

Despite the heavy career demands on him, Mr. Le Dain was a "great dad," says his son Eric. "He worked very hard, but the great thing was that he worked from home, so he was always there to participate and get out and play.

Mr. Le Dain was appointed to the Federal Court of Appeal in 1975, where he served until Pierre Trudeau named him to the Supreme Court of Canada in May 1984.

Though regarded as a moderate liberal, Mr. Le Dain didn't believe in labelling judges. "Judges don't come to each case with a predisposition," he once said. "They look at each case and try to do justice."

Mr. Le Dain exemplified that approach in his own rulings, says Ed Ratushny, a University of Ottawa law professor. "He was a very conscientious judge. He agonized over decisions and worked very hard at getting them right."

In the late summer of 1988, Judge Le Dain suffered a major depressive illness and was hospitalized.

Chief Justice Brian Dickson quickly concluded that Mr. Le Dain's health would not allow him to resume his duties, and so advised the ailing judge's wife, a "precipitous action" that authors Robert Sharpe and Kent Roach say was bitterly resented by Mr. Le Dain, his family, and some former court colleagues. "They thought that Le Dain should have been given time to recover."

Mr. Le Dain's forced retirement on Nov. 30, 1988 was unfortunate, says Mr. Ratushny, "because it prevented him from reaching his full fruition as a judge." He was just 64 when he left the court, and never worked again.

Eric Le Dain says his father was most proud of the clarity of his judgments, "the fact that what he wrote would stand the test of time and review.

"He was very effective as a teacher, judge and parent, perhaps because he could isolate the crux of an issue and bring clarity to the complex, and that worked in all three areas."

Mr. Le Dain was made a companion of the Order of Canada in 1989.

Mr. Le Dain's funeral will be held Friday at 2 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral, 439 Queen St. Visitation is tomorrow from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the central chapel of Hulse, Playfair & McGarry, 315 McLeod St.

Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2007 The Ottawa Citizen
Contact: Ottawa Citizen
Website: Ottawa Citizen
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