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Joseph Arvay

Arvay remembered as one of Canada’s greatest constitutional litigators

Wednesday, December 09, 2020 @ 9:56 AM | By Ian Burns

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Constitutional lawyer Joseph Arvay is being lauded as a tireless fighter for civil liberties and human rights after his death at the age of 71.

Arvay, a lawyer with Arvay Finlay LLP in Vancouver, died of a heart attack Dec. 7. As a lawyer, he was involved in some of Canada’s most prominent constitutional litigation, including Carter v. Canada (AG) 2015 SCC 5, which found that restrictions on physician-assisted death violated the Charter, and Canada (Attorney General) v. PHS Community Services Society 2011 SCC 44, which invalidated the then-Harper government’s refusal to exempt a Vancouver safe injection site from drug possession laws.

Joseph Arvay

Mark Underhill, a colleague at Arvay Finlay for over 25 years, said he made an “unparalleled” contribution to public law jurisprudence in Canada.

“The energy and passion that went into his work was just remarkable. He had boundless energy for his cases,” he said. “And that was ultimately because of one thing — he cared so deeply about all of them. He immersed himself in these cases in every sense of that word and it was a challenge to keep up, but it was a real honour to have worked with him.”

Arvay also spearheaded the successful fight against indefinite solitary confinement and recently served as counsel in a landmark case brought by 15 young people alleging the federal government’s response to greenhouse gases is a violation of their Charter rights.

B.C. Attorney General David Eby called Arvay, who received the Order of Canada in 2017, one of the finest constitutional lawyers in Canada and a tireless advocate for human rights, Indigenous peoples and many other marginalized groups.

“Joe’s commitment to the public interest was matched by his exceptional talent. He was brilliant in arguing even the most difficult cases, and his willingness to take on causes at the edge of the law meant that his work reshaped constitutional law in Canada,” he said. “We studied Joe’s work in law school. I aspired to work with him as a law student and young lawyer, and I had the honour to retain him on our most difficult challenges as attorney general. He was universally respected and admired for his remarkable intellect, unparalleled work ethic, legal creativity and courage.”

Born in Ontario, Arvay was involved in a car accident at the age of 21 which left him a paraplegic. He had law degrees from the University of Western Ontario and Harvard Law School and was a member of the bar in both British Columbia and Yukon.

In a release, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) said “many of the BCCLA’s greatest achievements would not have been possible without Joe’s contributions.”   

“Joe taught us so much and words fail to express how much he will be missed by the BCCLA,” the statement read. “We know many others are also grieving the loss of Joe, one of this country’s greatest constitutional litigators and fighters for civil liberties and human rights. We extend our condolences to his family and his many friends, colleagues and clients.”

And Chief Justice Richard Wagner called Arvay “a well-known advocate here at the Supreme Court and a much-admired member of the bar.”

“I speak on behalf of all my colleagues when I say that his advocacy skills were second to none,” Wagner said before opening Supreme Court hearings Dec. 8. “Mr. Arvay’s legacy is outstanding, and we extend our most heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.”

A lot of people would still be suffering without Arvay, said Underhill.

“To me that is what it is all about — you think about what people were going through dealing with discrimination in their lives, and he was able to lift that burden,” he said. “He didn’t shy away from the fact that he was representing groups which may not have been particularly popular at the time, but his view was they were entitled to equality and justice and he was bound and determined to fight for that.”

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