What Roy McMurtry can teach us about never giving up

The former attorney general was a superstar at Queen’s Park — but his career started with a shocking defeat 47 years ago yesterday
By Steve Paikin - Published on Mar 16, 2020
Roy McMurtry served as Ontario’s attorney general from 1975 to 1985. (Steve Paikin)

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People get buildings named after them for two reasons: (1) they’ve given a lot of money, and (2) they’ve done something so important for their community that it needs to be recognized with more than just a pat on the back.

So when you walk down Bay Street in downtown Toronto, just a stone’s throw south of the Ontario legislature, you’ll see the McMurtry-Scott Building, the head office of the Attorney General of Ontario. The building was named after the two most influential and arguably most important attorneys general in our history: Roy McMurtry and Ian Scott.

Scott, who served as Ontario’s AG from 1985 to 1990 and died almost 14 years ago at age 72, introduced reforms to the court system that last to this day.

McMurtry is 87, lives in midtown Toronto, and is fighting the usual maladies that octogenarians deal with. We had a visit at his home last month, during which he invited me into his “den of memories” — a room filled floor to ceiling with myriad pictures, sculptures, souvenirs, and memorabilia from his time in public life.    

Only two people in Ontario history have been both attorney general and chief justice of the province’s court system: Dana Porter (whose better-known son Julian still practices law at 83) and Roland Roy McMurtry. That’s a pretty small club as these things go.

McMurtry needs a cane to get around these days, and he labours when he breathes. But his mind is still sharp, and he still vividly remembers his time as Premier Bill Davis’s attorney general from 1975 to 85.

Half a century ago, McMurtry was a rising star in Tory circles. After Davis defeated Allan Lawrence by only 44 votes on the fourth ballot at the 1971 Progressive Conservative leadership convention, it was McMurtry who played peacemaker, bringing both sides together at a private meeting at Toronto’s National Club. Party unity became the order of the day, and all the fissures from the campaign healed. Later that year, Davis went on to lead the PCs to a majority bigger than the one he’d inherited.

Yet this superstar of both politics and the law started his career by being on the wrong side of one of the most shocking upsets in Ontario political history. When Lawrence quit provincial politics in 1972 to seek a federal seat, the PCs thought this was an opportunity to get their man McMurtry into the legislature. So he ran in the ensuing byelection in the downtown Toronto riding of St. George on March 15, 1973 — 47 years ago yesterday — expecting that his victory would be a foregone conclusion. After all, he’d known Davis since their days playing Varsity Blues football together at the University of Toronto; the candidate was well known and seemingly had plenty of party support; and St. George had been a reliably Conservative riding for 30 straight years. Yes, you read that right — downtown Toronto was considered prime Tory territory back in the day.

But the Davis government was experiencing some serious mid-term blues, and, as a result, voters sent the PC government a blistering message at McMurtry’s expense. They chose the Liberals’ first-ever female MPP, Toronto city councillor Margaret Campbell, by 1,400 votes.

“I knocked on doors for Roy in that byelection,” recalls Bill Saunderson, who went on to become an Ontario PC cabinet minister two decades later. “I was completely shocked when he lost. It was Roy’s Ides of March.” 

But McMurtry tried again in the 1975 general election in Eglinton (which was actually the riding in which he lived) and this time romped to victory. Davis immediately appointed him attorney general, and he became perhaps the most influential AG ever. Many of McMurtry’s cabinet colleagues could only look on in envy as the new cabinet minister got away with stuff they couldn’t.

For example, despite considerable antipathy in the Conservative heartland toward expanding French-language services, McMurtry made Ontario’s court system effectively bilingual, even announcing his decision without giving Davis a heads-up. The Tory core was outraged, but McMurtry thought it was the right thing to do — and, therefore, just did it.

When a somewhat frustrated Davis tried to admonish his AG for having taken this risky political move without consulting him, McMurtry told the premier he’d done it that way so that Davis could fire his rogue minister if he needed to and claim (legitimately) to have had no prior knowledge of the move. The policy stuck and remains in effect today.

McMurtry won three more elections in Eglinton, then ran for the PC leadership to replace Davis in 1985. Although he was the candidate the opposition parties feared facing the most, the majority of PC delegates had had it with Red Tory candidates. McMurtry came last on the first ballot, dropped off, and watched the far more conservative Frank Miller win the day. Recognizing his time as an influential player at Queen’s Park had come to an end, he accepted an appointment from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to become Canada’s high commissioner in the United Kingdom.

After his term as high commissioner ended, he returned to Toronto, practised law, and became chair and CEO of the Canadian Football League. 

But McMurtry wasn’t close to being finished with public service. Mulroney next appointed him associate chief justice of the superior court in Ontario in 1991, and chief justice three years later. In 2003, McMurtry’s court made its most historically significant decision, ruling that same-sex couples could not be denied marriage licences by the province. In essence, McMurtry helped institutionalize marriage equality — the Globe and Mail named him and his colleagues “Nation Builders of 2003.”

Two decades earlier, he’d been on a very different footing with the LGBTQ community. In 1981, the Toronto police raided four gay bathhouses and arrested nearly 300 people. Community activists accused McMurtry of having had advance knowledge of the raids and of possibly having approved them. He’s always denied this and expressed frustration that history has portrayed him this way. Regardless, his role in legalizing same-sex marriage has formed a major part of his legacy. 

During his time on the bench, and even after, McMurtry has remained a go-to guy when governments need problems solved. He served as the Toronto mayor’s race-relations commissioner. In 2010, after police overreacted by “kettling” protestors at the G20 gathering in Toronto, the provincial government tasked McMurtry with reviewing a decades-old law called the Public Works and Protection Act, which prohibited demonstrations near the perimeter where G20 delegates met. McMurtry found the law outrageous in a democratic society and urged its cancellation. It was yet another example of his willingness to prod governments into valuing individual rights. 

But back to McMurtry’s “den of memories” — a walk through a museum of the man’s life. He seems to have met everyone who was anyone in politics over the past half century. There are pictures with Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher, with Brian Mulroney and Bill Davis. He is stubbornly still a “Bill Davis Red Tory,” preferring moderate, pragmatic progressive conservatism to its more ideological right-wing or populist alternatives. And he hasn’t been shy about saying so in his memoirs and public speeches. He has saved some of his harshest comments for former prime minister Stephen Harper (“I never met the man”) and isn’t much of a fan of the current premier of Ontario either (“I’ve yet to meet Doug Ford either”). In fact, as neither the federal nor the provincial Conservative parties significantly reflect his preferred brand of conservatism, McMurtry tends to back people rather than parties these days. He endorsed Eric Hoskins for Ontario Liberal leader in 2013 (like McMurtry in 1985, Hoskins came last on the first ballot). And he’s fessed up to having voted for the Greens, in part because Peter Elgie, son of his former cabinet colleague Robert, was the local candidate. 

His home is also full of his own paintings. McMurtry has become an excellent landscape artist over the years, having been trained by former Group of Seven legend A.J. Casson. He also served as chancellor of York University from 2008 to 2014. 

Until recently, he was still at a Toronto law firm, but he’s now stepped down from that perch. 

In two and a half months, he’ll turn 88 years old. Two months after that, his lifelong pal and former boss Bill Davis will turn 91. McMurtry is one of those legendary political and judicial figures who’s played an outsized role in making Ontario what it is today. It behooves us all to think of him when we walk by 720 Bay Street in downtown Toronto or when we walk through the McMurtry Gardens of Justice — opened eight years ago to mark his 80th birthday — in the pedestrian avenue that runs between Osgoode Hall and the courthouse at 361 University Avenue.

The fact that all his accomplishments started with a stunning defeat 47 years ago yesterday also says something about never giving up — another classic McMurtry trait.

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