It would have been different for Dalton McGuinty had he stuck with his plan to go to medical school. He often quotes his mother as saying, “What good is a Premier to me?”. But, after receiving his degree in biology from McMaster University, he decided to change directions. He attended law school in Ottawa in the early 1980s, and was called to the bar of Ontario shortly thereafter.
I first met Dalton on the 2003 election campaign when I organized a farm visit and barbecue just outside of Stratford. On the previous day, the Ernie Eves Conservatives issued a press release calling McGuinty an “evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet”. A snowy-white barn kitten, aptly named Snowball, soon became the most famous kitten in the province when Dalton – at the urging of media – was photographed holding the kitten. This was a defining moment for the campaign.
Dalton McGuinty went on to win that election, making him the first Liberal premier to be elected since David Peterson. What we did not know at the time was that he would go on to become the most politically-successful Premier since Oliver Mowat, winning the next two elections.
I was fortunate enough to join the Premier’s Office after that first election, after having worked for a time in Ottawa with the Federal Government. In addition to meeting many amazing people, I got the opportunity to work closely with Dalton. We travelled throughout the province and on country visits to Europe, China, India, and Japan. On these trips, I got to know him as an honest and decent man, devoted to public service and his family. But I did not get much chance to learn about his time as a lawyer in Ottawa.
While much has been written about Dalton McGuinty in his role as Premier, we haven’t heard much about his time as a lawyer. Dalton graciously sat down with me for an exclusive JUST. interview about his time in law school, and as a lawyer.
REMEMBERING LAW SCHOOL
One of the things I enjoyed most about my time at law school was the friendships I made there. I think that’s true for [many] people, the friends you make in university really do last a lifetime. In my case, there was a group of about nine of us who became good friends in first year. I have fond memories of going to the cottage of one of the guys in our group, and spending time having pizza, drinking beer and relaxing after a gruelling day in class.
Those days came to a sudden end in second year when I got married to Terri. Then, things got even better. [I] gotta say that – she might read this article.
BALANCING FAMILY AND LAW SCHOOL
It was a lot of fun. In fact, in hindsight, Terri and I agree that those were probably some of the happiest days of our lives. Of course, at the time you don’t always see it that way. Our oldest, Carleen, was born when I was starting third year. We were all jammed into a one-bedroom apartment in the Glebe in Ottawa. My desk was an ironing board. But I remember coming home at the end of the day eager and excited to see Terri and our new baby. Like I said, those were great days for our family.
MCGUINTY & MCGUINTY
My younger brother, Dylan, and I were in general practice, so I did a lot of estate law and a bit of criminal law. I defended a lot of young offenders through legal aid as well. It wasn’t a terribly lucrative practice [but] the work was interesting, and we were a good team.
I remember one of our proudest days was the day the new boardroom table arrived. Unfortunately, the delivery men couldn’t get it up the stairs and just abandoned it in the stairwell. Dylan and I jury-rigged a series of ropes and pulleys up to the second-story balcony and managed to get it through the sliding doors. While we worked, a small group of people gathered to watch us, perhaps sensing a lawsuit ready to happen.
It’s a good metaphor for our partnership, I think. We worked well together, worked hard, and always found a way to get the job done.
REMEMBERING A FAVOURITE CASE
I remember the case of the “thin skull man.” Two men had gotten into an altercation, and the first man threw a punch that killed the second. It later emerged that the victim had an unusually thin skull, and the defense unsuccessfully tried to use that fact to get their client acquitted. The judge ruled that “you take your victim as you find him” and found the defendant guilty of manslaughter.
I wish I could say that I remember the case because it conveyed some deep legal truth. The reality is that it illustrated – as is so often the case in the law – that human beings are frail and fallible creatures.
HOW TRAINING AS A LAWYER HELPS HIM GOVERN THE PROVINCE
Of course one of the biggest parts of my job is making laws – so, obviously, a legal background is tremendously helpful as we set the legal and regulatory framework that governs the Province of Ontario. But other skills are no less important, such as the ability to write clearly and persuasively, to argue logically and get to the heart of issues. When I was in law school, I learned how to sift through mounds of information to find the most salient facts. That discernment is an absolutely critical part of my job now.
BEING A LAWYER
To me, being a lawyer is a sacred trust. People come to us at some of the most challenging and difficult moments in their lives, and they count on us to help them understand their rights and responsibilities and then act on their behalf.
GOING BACK TO LAW
In some ways, I’ve never left. And I imagine that, one way or another, the law will always be a part of what I do, and who I am.
A MESSAGE TO THE PROFESSION
Simply put: thank you.
Thank you for the responsibilities you assume, the help you provide and the lives that you change. In a society built on the rule of law, our profession is crucial to ensuring equality, opportunity and fairness for all citizens. And when we look around the world at places that don’t have what we have – or that are struggling to establish the rule of law – it’s clear that the legal profession is indispensable to building the kind of society we cherish, just as it also has a continuing obligation to keep a watchful eye to ensure that it remains so.
About the Author
John Zerucelli is a lawyer at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP in Toronto