Emmett Hall: Establishment Radical


Dennis published a biography of Emmett Hall in 1985. Mr. Hall was a Supreme Court judge but is best known for leading the royal commission that recommended medicate for Canada. Dennis revised and updated the book in 2005 and spoke about Hall at the Ottawa Public Library in November.


Many people have asked me why I chose to write a book about Emmett Hall. I did so because Mr. Hall has had a greater impact on this country – and a greater impact on the lives of millions of Canadians – than almost anyone that I can think of.

The late journalist Walter Stewart that sums up Hall’s contributions nicely: “A number of crucial factors have gone into making Canada the nation that it is today,” Walter said. “The Rockies, the St. Lawrence River, and Emmett Hall.”

Hall sat on the Supreme Court of Canada for 10 years. He stood alone against eight of his brethren in 1967 when he insisted that Steven Truscott had not received a fair murder trial and should be awarded a new one. The Truscott case has not gone away – far from it. Thirty-five years after Truscott was released from prison, the federal minister of justice believes that a miscarriage of justice may well have occurred and Truscott’s case is being reviewed.

It was Hall’s powerful dissenting Supreme Court judgment in the 1973 Nisga’a case that set the stage for all future negotiations on Indian land claims.

Hall also co-chaired the 1968 Hall-Dennis report that changed education in Ontario – and the results of the commission are still being hotly debated.

Another Hall royal commission in the 1970s investigated the sensitive issue of rail transportation and small-town survival in western Canada – an issue that is revisiting us today at a time of economic crisis in rural areas.

Hall’s legal judgments and his other work have an amazing contemporary relevance.

But Emmett Hall is best known as a father of medicare. It was his royal commission in the 1960s that recommended publicly financed health care for Canadians. You owe him a debt every time you visit a doctor or go into the hospital.

As a judge Hall weighed the evidence. He came to believe that a public health system is a far better plan than a myriad of competing private insurance plans duplicating services, spending millions on advertising, and leaving those who can’t pay to fend for themselves.

In writing a biography of Emmett Hall, I felt that I was writing about a big swath of the history of 20th century Canada – but writing it through the focus and prism of biography. Hall was born in 1897 when Laurier was Prime Minister. When Hall died in 1995, Jean Chretien was in that post. That makes for 13 Prime Ministers who served during Hall’s lifetime. That’s an incredible sweep of history and Hall left his mark on our country in a way that few people have.

So, that’s Emmett Hall on the wide screen. I want to tell you a bit about how I came to write the book, and about my encounters with Mr. Hall.

Hall’s life & work

Hall was born in rural Quebec in 1897, one of 10 children in a staunchly Catholic Irish family. His parents moved west to Saskatoon in 1910. When he was 17, Hall enrolled in the law school, where he was a seatmate, friend and competitor of John Diefenbaker’s.

Hall practiced law in small town Saskatchewan, then for many years in Saskatoon. It was a general practice, but he also acted in several high profile criminal trials – including his defence of some of on-to-Ottawa trekkers in Regina in 1935.

But Hall always harbored ambitions to play a prominent role on a wider public stage. He wanted to be a judge but Jimmy Gardiner, Saskatchewan’s most powerful Liberal politician in Ottawa, controlled those appointments. Hall was a Conservative and his name wasn’t on Gardiner’s list of favourites.

Hall tried his own hand at politics but lost on both occasions. In 1957, he was 58 years old and he and his wife Isabel had begun to plan for retirement. But all of that changed early on the morning of June 11. On the previous day, John Diefenbaker and the Conservatives had received enough votes in the federal election to indicate a minority government. As Hall later told the story, Diefenbaker called him early the next morning and reminded him that there was a vacancy on Saskatchewan’s Court of Queen’s Bench. How about it? Diefenbaker wanted to know. When could Hall start?

With that promotion began an amazing era that propelled Hall from relative obscurity to national renown. Rescued from retirement, he proceeded to become Saskatchewan’s chief justice and later a member of the Supreme Court of Canada and the compassionate conscience of a nation.

Hall as a judge

As a judge, Hall was not a scholar in the manner of his good friend Chief Justice Bora Laskin. But Hall had long experience as a trial lawyer. He knew how the world worked, including its seamy side, and he had good insight into human nature. He was decisive. He wrote his judgments quickly and in what is now called plain language.

He served prior to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which came into effect in 1982. In the post Charter era, courts have been called upon to play an expanded role in interpreting and guiding the law. Roy Romanow, who was instrumental in the negotiations leading to the Charter, told me that Hall would have been a progressive judge in this our post-Charter era.

Hall served on the Supreme Court for 10 years then returned home to Saskatoon in 1973.

My encounters with Emmett Hall

I met Mr. Hall in 1982 when I was working with CBC Television in Regina. It was the 20th anniversary of medicare in Saskatchewan, and I was doing a documentary to recognize the occasion. I travelled to Saskatoon on a brilliantly sunny morning in June to interview him. He was gracious and entertaining.

A year later, I contacted Hall and asked if I could interview him for a radio documentary that I had proposed about him to a national CBC Radio program called Sunday Morning. I approached him again in 1984 and suggested a biography. It was a great privilege to spend hours talking with him in his penthouse apartment along the riverbank in downtown Saskatoon. His wife had died a few years earlier and the mere mention of her would bring tears to his eyes.

Hall was usually charming but he was tough minded and he could be blunt. He did not like questions that probed too deeply into his private life, although he was prepared to be more revealing as we went along. Nor did he appreciate questions that dealt with anything that might be considered a failure, such as his lack of success in seeking political office. I asked him why he wasn’t successful when he ran for the Conservatives. He growled at me, “Because I didn’t get enough votes.”

One day he became annoyed with me and he said my questions were “stupid.” I shut off my tape recorder and told him that these questions were the only ones that I had prepared for that day. I left his apartment, and I fully expected that the whole project was going down in flames. I called him the next day. He was friendly and he asked when I was coming over. I told him that, given what happened the previous day, I thought that our project might be over. He seemed genuinely surprised, then said, “Hell, don’t let that bother you.” So we continued.

There were aspects of my book that Hall did not like, but generally he agreed that it had been a good piece of work. I was able to visit with him in his penthouse apartment in Saskatoon a number of times in the later 1980s, but then I moved and saw him only one more time – on a precious evening when hundreds of his friends and acquaintances gathered in Saskatoon to celebrate his 95th birthday in November 1993. He was lucid and gracious in his remarks that night, but a short time later he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. He died two years later.

Summing up Hall’s life & contributions

Emmett Hall was a man of no small ego, but also a man of great principle, incredible energy and competence. He was a father of medicare and a libertarian judge who insisted that the law must be an instrument of justice as well as punishment. He was a champion of Aboriginal rights and a friend of the farmer. He was a justice seeker who opposed bigotry, hatred and ignorance with all of his impressive strength and persuasion. Laurier said the 20th century was to be the century of Canada, and Emmett Hall never stopped believing it. He was a social gadfly, an establishment radical, who believed in the system but insisted on reforming it. We are the richer for his having lived and worked among us.

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