There is a long corridor on the busy, third floor of the Vancouver court house where the busiest courtrooms in the province crank out justice on an industrial scale. It features a remarkable photo gallery – portraits of every Supreme Court judge who has ever dispensed justice in the Province.
Display of political correctness
I spend a lot of time in that corridor, pacing up and down while awaiting my turn at bat, and I sometimes amuse myself by mentally checking off all of those judges, both past and present, whom I have appeared before, and remembering how I fared on those outings.
My pastime has taken a new twist, now that the illustrious benchers of our Law Society have shamefully succumbed to political correctness, by taking aim at the legacy of Sir Matthew Bailey Begbie, the first judge of the colony of British Columbia, the first Chief Justice of BC and the first picture on the corridor wall.
Yes, from now on my pre-court waiting ritual will consist of trying to guess which of the judges on the wall had ever sentenced a convict to death. The task should keep me morbidly amused for a while, since British Columbia has sent 44 people to the gallows since confederation, and the portraits of all the judges who sent them there, gaze sternly out at those of us who pace the halls of justice – at least, for now.
Who hung here
I have to wonder if the next time I pace the third floor corridor, I will be met with a patchwork quilt showing bare squares of faded wall where portraits of long dead judges used to hang, because the decisions they were called upon to make, back in the day, are no longer politically correct. You see, that’s exactly what the Law Society has done to Sir Matthew.
For as long as I can remember, (and I can remember way back before they even moved into their present digs at 845 Cambie Street a couple of decades ago,) the entrance to the Law Society building has been graced with a bronze statue of his Lordship on horseback, demonstrating how, single-handedly, he rode throughout our vast colony, to bring the Queen’s justice to an unruly collection of drifters, miners, trappers, traders, and, to her occasionally reluctant subjects, the First Nations (formerly “Indians”). That fine stature is now gone, the victim of an unseemly rush to political correctness on the part of our benchers eager to show their eager agreement with the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Report.
Not only that, but rumour has it that the larger-than-life statue of a pipe-smoking Sir Matthew – the one that stands in Begbie Square, right outside the New Westminster Courthouse, (whose address by the way is #1 Begbie Square!) may be given the axe as well. (One wonders if it will be pulled down by a battle tank, Saddam-like, while the TV cameras roll…)
So what was Sir Matthew’s sin, to have him so unceremoniously unfrocked? Well, he hanged people. Quite a few people. In fact, he was known as “The Hanging Judge”. Most famously, he hanged six first Nations leaders, and for that he must be stripped of his legacy, to appease the natives, who we are told, are offended by the statue. Those chiefs, incidentally, led war parties that killed 20 people.
At this point in a rant, it is obligatory to comment that no disrespect is intended towards our First Nations, nor is it intended to belittle the Truth and Reconciliation report. Our indigenous people have been shamefully treated, pretty much from the time of first contact with Europeans, and we are long overdue to begin addressing those wrongs.
That said, toppling statues, and re-writing the legacy of a judge who served this province faithfully for 36 years, reeks of political correctness gone mad. We have no idea how Judge Bailey, as a man, felt about the sentence he had to impose, or indeed how he felt generally about indigenous people, although his record generally suggests that he supported aboriginal title.
The fact is, he was doing his job, applying the law. In the 1800’s, the law mandated hanging for attacking and killing people.
Righting historical injustice
We cannot continuously re-write history, which is rife with injustice, simply to pander to the sentiments of political factions today. To illustrate, consider the case of Leo Mantha.
Who? Well, Leo was the last person to be hanged in the Province of BC, in 1962. Leo was gay and was convicted of murdering a young man who spurned his attentions. By today’s standards, it was a pretty harsh penalty for a crime of passion, so what are we going to do? Should the LGBT community decide to take offence, trash the memory of the judge who imposed the sentence, and pry his portrait off the wall?
I wouldn’t mind if the Law Society were to direct some of the rather exorbitant dues they exact from me each year towards funding some access to justice initiatives, or scholarships to ensure more First Nations students have access to law school, but pulling down statutes? Give me a break!
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