Tuesday, May 14, 2019

History of legal history

Went down last night to a dinner celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History and its inspirer/founder, former Ontario Attorney-General (and Chief Justice and much else) Roy McMurtry. Since the Society has access to the Law Society's stately Osgoode Hall and its dining room, the legal-tome-lined Convocation Hall, they do put on an elegant event. More impressive, even, was the mass of working lawyers the event attracted, men and women who understand (often having been persuaded by Roy McMurtry) that supporting a legal history society can be both a cultural pleasure and a kind of professional responsibility. Also in attendance: a few lively tables filled by us historians who have contributed to and benefited from the Society over the years.

Many examples were given at the dinner of the good work the society has done in forty years to stimulate legal-historical research and to create venues for publication,  (As the Society's editor-in-chief likes to say about the entwining of law and history, "There are two kinds of historians: those who do legal history and know they do, and those who do legal history but have not realized it yet."

Recently I have my own little testimonial to the good work the Society can do in that area. I agreed some time ago to write up Archer Martin, a past chief justice of British Columbia, for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: the usual 1500 words or so for the usual hundred dollars or so. Well, I know his career pretty well.  Then I confirmed that the British Columbia Archives holds a large collection of Martin's personal and professional correspondence, and since Martin was famously cranky and combative they seemed to obligatory reading.

Except my spending a month or two researching in Victoria on the DCB's hundred bucks seemed... well, impractical.  Happily, some consulting in the legal history community (thanks, Hamar) and with BC Archives and Museum (thanks, Lorne and Sally) confirmed that it would be perfectly practical to hire someone there with a iPhone and some organizing skills to photograph a collection of the relevant materials and send it to me to research at home and at leisure.

Now I'm pretty sure SSHRC and the Canada Council and every other granting agency I could think of would take a year or two to say no to a request for a small subvention to assist that process. Enter the Osgoode Society, which administers the Theodor Kerzner Research Grants (endowed by another lawyer-member of the society) to provide smallish amounts in support of legal history projects.  Voila: in a very short time I had some funds. I hasten to say it doesn't feel like a subsidy to me: seems to me the real beneficiaries will be some student on the Island, and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, and, you know, Canadian scholarship.  Nevertheless, I suddenly have new cause to appreciate the existence of the Osgoode Society. (And thank you, the late Theodor Kerzner -- whom I never met.) Do other professions have comparable organizations?

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