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Fisherman's son Rowe seen as 'great catch' for top court

Thursday, December 15, 2016 @ 7:00 PM | By Cristin Schmitz


Legal luminaries from Newfoundland and Labrador descended on Ottawa to witness one of their brightest lights — the proud son of a fisherman — take the province’s first-ever seat at the Supreme Court of Canada.

Justice Malcolm Rowe, sailor, skier, motorcyclist and adventure-seeker, was hailed as a highly accomplished jurist, with a formidable intellect and broad understanding of Canada, by those at the historic Dec. 2 ceremony welcoming the 63-year-old former Newfoundland Court of Appeal judge.

“I’m absolutely thrilled that a Newfoundlander and Labradorean has been appointed to the court — I’m particularly thrilled that it is Malcolm Rowe,” Newfoundland Chief Justice Derek Green told The Lawyers Weekly. “He brings a special set of qualities that I think are not easily found in one individual.”

“I think he’s a great catch,” echoed former Newfoundland premier and ex-federal fisheries minister Brian Tobin, who relied heavily on Rowe’s counsel during the mid-1990s Canada-EU overfishing conflict known as the “turbot wars.”

As a lawyer at that time, Rowe displayed “a very active, highly energetic and a marvelous mind,” Tobin told The Lawyers Weekly. “He has an incredible work ethic, incredible attention to detail, good judgment, fearless judgment and amazing focus…No matter how hard, how difficult, how complex the task…he just had qualities of character and integrity, and had the hard work and judgment, that were unmatched in any other person I’ve ever worked with,” Tobin recalled. “After a discussion it was never about whether it could be done, the next steps were all about how it shall be done.”

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin quickly found that out last month when she tested the mettle of her newest judge within days of his arrival at the court. “Early on I asked him to undertake an assignment that would have daunted most new judges,” she told the packed art deco courtroom. “When I expressed concern that perhaps I was presuming too much, he give me a steely look and replied archly, [with his law clerk at his side], ‘I have considered the matter. We are up to the task.’ And indeed Malcolm Rowe is up to the task.”

The chief justice called Justice Rowe “a man of few words — not given to idle chatter. For a while, this had me worried. After our second day of sitting, I said, ‘You’re not saying much Malcolm.’ He drew himself up and he said: ‘I will speak when I have something to say.’ And we discovered that on occasion, he has quite a bit to say!” she said to laughter. “Usually he waits until everyone else has weighed in, and then offers a pithy, thought-through comment that zings directly to the heart of the matter.”

Canadian Bar Association president René Basque said the judge’s friends describe him as both an adventurous spirit and a careful planner. “These traits may appear to be in conflict, but they are two sides of the same man. He takes a disciplined approach to fun but he does have fun. He skis, hikes, kayaks,” Basque noted. Last year the judge even circumnavigated Newfoundland in a small sailboat (where his “light” reading included Thomas Piketty’s tome on wealth and income inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century).

Lawyers who have appeared before Justice Rowe know him as a judge keenly interested in their arguments, but not in their peripheral verbiage or showboating, Basque said. “His courtroom interactions with lawyers have been described as ‘robust’ and ‘vibrant.’ He will challenge where he sees fit, and is unafraid to write a dissenting opinion.”

On behalf of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, ex-president Jeff Hirsch lauded the judge’s passion for Canadians and his profound knowledge of the country. As a mentor with Action Canada, he travelled coast to coast to coast, listening to the aspirations and views of people from all walks of life, including separatists in Quebec and drug addicts living in Vancouver’s downtown east side.

“Your knowledge of issues surrounding the development of indigenous law and the inherent right to self-government and jurisprudence related to treaties and Aboriginal title will serve this court well,” Hirsch predicted. “And at a time when Canada is working to advance reconciliation with indigenous peoples your background and your insights about the role of the court in dealing with issues relating to reconciliation are very significant.”

In remarks focused on his heartfelt appreciation of his family, friends and colleagues, and his home province, Justice Rowe thanked his mother, Mary, who left home at a young age to work in a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, and his late father, Harrison, who, as a boy, had to give up school to fish and put food on the table for his family. “You and my father gave my brother, Derrick, and me a good upbringing,” the judge told his mother, who was in Newfoundland watching the livestreamed ceremony. Justice Rowe also said he was “delighted” by the presence of his first wife, London-based U.K. Royal Mail chief Moya Greene, with whom he has a daughter, Mary Angela Rowe of Toronto’s Osler. “Beyond the bound of being Mary Angela’s parents, Moya and I have always encouraged one another in our careers and we are friends,” he remarked.

Of his spouse, Marty, Justice Rowe said “fortune has smiled upon me with beaming countenance.” He praised her cheerfulness, patience and “great diligence…transplanting us into a new home in Ottawa. In truth, home will be wherever we two are, and where we two are, will be a happy home.”

Citing his deep debt to friends and colleagues over the years, “too numerous to mention, each too dear to omit,” he acknowledged, “You’ve carried me forward by your good comradeship, by your example, and through the challenges that we have faced together.”

Finally Justice Rowe expressed gratitude for Newfoundland and Labrador, where he has lived for the past 20 years. “I’ve always been happy there,” he said. “I’ve visited almost every community on the island and Labrador. Where can you have as much fun just standing on the stagehead [wharf] speaking to a fisherman, or sitting in someone’s kitchen drinking tea and having a yarn? In good times, and in bad, and I fear too often it has been the latter in Newfoundland and Labrador, you feel at home in everyone’s house.”