The poet who outfought Duplessis
To tangle with Quebec's iron man in his own province is a deed that calls for valor. To lick him is a miracle. A versatile McGill professor named Frank Scott has done it twice. Here’s the story of the man who won one of the longest and most stirring courtroom feuds in history
A striking aspect of Canada’s devotion to freedom is the occasional eagerness of some Canadians to guard great freedoms by bleeding small liberties. No one places more confidence in this form of protection than Premier Maurice Duplessis of Quebec, who strove to save the people of his province from communism by passing the late Padlock Law, and to shield them from the “seditious” influence of the Jehovah’s Witness sect by, among other things, ordering the chairman of the Quebec Liquor Commission to revoke the liquor license held by a Witness named Frank Roncarelli.
Loaded measures like these raise a couple of loaded questions: when is a law illegal, and when does a justice minister (Duplessis also acts as attorney-general) abuse justice? Recent events suggest that no one knows the answers better, or backs them up with more legal muscle, than an
agile Quebecker named Frank Scott, who fought both the Padlock Law test and the Roncarelli suit through the courts of Quebec and beat Duplessis both times in the last round, before the Supreme Court of Canada.
On Jan. 27, 1959, the day the Supreme Court announced its si.\-to-three decision to award Roncarelli $33,123 in damages, Frank Scott came back to the McGill University Law School after lunch to find the students in his seminar on constitutional law, along with several of his fellow professors, milling around a magnum of champagne. At the sight of Scott. Professor Maxwell Cohen raised a hand for silence. “I feel a speech coming on,” he announced.
“This is one time,” Scott interrupted, twirling the champagne bottle, “when you should keep Mumm.”
Up went Cohen’s glass. “Here's to a man whose only mistake was joining the wrong political party too soon,” a reference to Scott's long membership in the leading councils of the CCF.
“That,” Scott shot back at Cohen, a Liberal of comparatively brief standing, “is better than joining the right party too late,” and he rolled out the big body-twisting laugh that sooner or later rings through any room Frank Scott walks into.
The gag-man in this scene is a figure of national eminence in four separate professions—or three professions and an art—and his verbal horseplay illuminates all of them. Scott is “one of the three deans of the Canadian law teaching community,” in the words of Professor Bora Laskin of the University of Toronto, the only other expert on constitutional law whose reputation approaches Scott’s in that field. By general consent Scott would today be dean, in fact, of McGill Law School if he had backed out of his second career, politics, and the controversial commitments of a leading socialist. Scott was the CCF's national chairman between 1942 and 1950 and is at the core of the group that is attempting to rebuild the party on a broader base today. His Supreme Court pleas for Roncarelli continued on page 70
Continued from page 17
“One of the most ill-distributed commodities in this community/’ says Scott, “is justice”
and John Switzman, the defendant in the Padlock Law test, have made him one of the best-known courtroom lawyers in the country. Since the Roncarelli decision he is petitioned several times a week on his school-office phone to secure the protection of the law for callers encouraged by his reputation.
“Je regrette,” Scott recently ended one of these conversations in his measured French, and turned away to remark, “I’m convinced that one of the most illdistributed commodities in this community is justice.”
Scott’s fourth field of fame is inferred, in the champagne incident, only by his wit. He is, by a bemusing change of pace, among the country’s sharpest satiric poets. In the stiff-kneed but unexaggerated appraisal of the late E. K. Brown, Scott’s poetry is the “expression of a man who is living intensely on all levels, spiritual, intellectual, political, and sensual.”
An equally fervent admirer of Scott’s intensity, although on rather different grounds, is the embattled ex-restaurateur Frank Roncarelli. “In 1946, when my attorney Lou Stein and I were looking for counsel to help fight my case, a mutual friend suggested Frank Scott. I didn't think there was a chance to get him but we asked him anyway. He came out with his sleeves rolled up, and,” Roncarelli adds, “I’ve been surprised and thankful ever since.”
The fight Scott waded into turned on Duplessis’ liability for his order to revoke Roncarelli’s license, not on the order itself. The facts, which were never in dispute, were these. In two years Roncarelli had posted $83,000 in bail for 393 Jehovah’s Witnesses arrested for breaking Montreal bylaws by distributing literature and preaching without city permits. (Later, in a test case fought over the legality of a Witness pamphlet called Quebec’s Burning Hate, the Supreme Court ruled that the Witnesses have “absolute liberty” to indulge their beliefs.) A report of Roncarelli’s prodigality as a Witness bondsman reached Duplessis, who told the then-chairman of the liquor commission, Edouard Archambault, to cut off Roncarelli's license.
For six months after Roncarelli was stripped of his license, Scott and Stein petitioned for the right to sue — first the Quebec Liquor Commission and then its chairman, Archambault—for damages they set at $250,000. Both pleas were spiked by Duplessis, acting as attorneygeneral. By June 1947, there was only one man left to sue; Roncarelli brought an action against Duplessis himself for $118,741. Charging the premier with “administrative lawlessness and tyranny,” Scott told the country that “if discretionary powers of the government can be exercised in this way in Canada, no person will have the protection from violation of his freedom which he is entitled to expect.” A protest meeting against Duplessis called by the Civil Liberties Association (Scott was then president) at Monument National in Montreal drew 1.200 people whose outrage kindled into a near-riot.
Duplessis jumped in to charge that all
such protests were “communist inspired,” adding that it was not a question of bigman-against-little-man, as Roncarelli is “a very wealthy man.”
There was some truth in the remark; in the tapestry-hung Crescent Street restaurant that had been in his family for thirty-four years, Roncarelli catered to gastronomes like John and Lionel Barrymore and two European governments-inexile that met there regularly twice a week throughout World War II for lunchin-council. But by the end of 1947, after the enforced liquidation of his business, it was certainly true that he was working as a sixty-doliar-a-week laborer. It is equally true that Frank Scott, through the three trials and twelve years that followed, kept his sleeves rolled up in Roncarelli's defense without receiving a nickel in retainer or fees.
The case reached the Supreme Court of Canada with this history, official and unofficial: in the first trial, Quebec Superior Court, in May 1951, awarded Roncarelli $8,123 in damages. It was the law professor's maiden appearance as a courtroom lawyer, but it is Scott’s poetic sense of irony that savors the memory of this trial. “We subpoenaed Duplessis. He marched into court, impatient to return to Quebec, but the trial couldn't start—there wasn’t an official stenographer present. ‘This is intolerable,’ the premier informed the judge. The judge pointed out that while his own salary was paid by Ottawa, the stenographers’ salaries were paid by Mr. Duplessis himself in Quebec. ‘If you’d pay for more stenographers,’ he told Duplessis, ‘this wouldn’t happen.’ Ah, the delightful irony of it.”
Since the Superior Court award hardly compensated Roncarelli for his ruin, Scott and Stein lodged an action for increased damages. It reached the Quebec Court of Appeal in 1956; on the ground that Duplessis had “acted in good faith" in discharging his duties, the court quashed the previous judgment.
By June 1958, when Roncarelli’s final appeal reached the Supreme Court, headline writers had made it one of the most celebrated civil - liberties actions ever fought in Canada. Scott, whose six-footthree frame draped in the black robes erf counsel resembled a visual allegory of justice, charged that Duplessis had “sentenced Roncarelli to economic death" solely for exercising his legal right to provide bail. Six of the nine judges agreed. Justice Rand’s written opinion repeated Scott's charge: Duplessis’ action, he wrote, “was a gross abuse of legal power expressly intended to punish (Roncarelli).” Roncarelli was re-awarded the original $8,123, an additional $25,000, and accrued interest and court costs that brought the total of Duplessis’ liability to almost $50,000.
“The uncanny thing about Scott's presentation was the way he anticipated the judges’ questions and answered them on his feet,” said a lawyer who was there.
“Nothing uncanny about it,” Scott ex-
plains. “My students have been raising the same points for years.” He detects, however, some injustice even in his own laurels. "The man who really showed guts in Roncarelli’s action was A. L. Stein. It was Stein who first took the case on; it was Stein who subpoenaed Duplessis and cross-examined him. For a lawyer who appears in front of judges appointed by Duplessis every day, that took the kind of moral courage that is too rare in the practicing bar.”
It was also Stein, incidentally, who in 1950 won the “thought control” case, as Scott stigmatized it. which centred on the pamphlet, Quebec's Burning Hate. This victory came within a few years of Scott's Supreme Court defeat of the Padlock Law, the Quebec act that authorized police to lock the occupants out of any premises they believed were being used for seditious purposes. Considered as a body, the Supreme Court decisions in these Scott-Stein cases establish a working code for civil liberties that were hazily defined at best before the actions were fought. “Now it's there for everybody to see,” Scott says. “The law stands above the state. The law, in this sense, is the state.”
The law, theoretically at least, hadn’t yet necessarily said its last word in the Roncarelli matter. Because the suit started twelve years ago. Premier Duplessis was one of the last litigants in Canada's courts who had the right of appeal to the Privy Council in London. Early in March Duplessis made his decision. “Should I go in appeal to England?” he asked, and answered, “No. I have the intimate conviction it is the affair of the grand tribunal of public opinion in Quebec . . .”
By an ironic coincidence that is not lost on the poet in Scott, this legal pipeline to the Privy Council was the target, in May 1931, of his first incursion into public affairs. "The Privy Council has been too handicapped by ignorance of Canada to give good judgment in Canadian constitutional law.” he charged in a speech at Ottawa. Then, warming to his work, he let all Canadian officialdom have it with both barrels. Neither barrel has had time to cool off since. “Responsible government in Canada,” he declared, "has been disfigured by cabinet dictatorship, bred out of party politics by commission government, the wet nurse of that rickety infant, Canadian socialism.”
If Canadian socialism was a rickety infant. Scott soon became its godfather. Within months of his Ottawa speech he met University of Toronto history professor F. H. Underhill, and in January 1932 they formed the League for Social Reconstruction, inviting J. S. Woodsworth, who was already the leading active campaigner for social reform, to become honorary president.
The league withered away during World War II but by that time its program and most of its people had been absorbed by the CCF. The link between the LSR and the CCF, formed six months later at a meeting in Calgary, was Woodsw'orth, who became president of both groups. Scott and two other McGill professors attended the first national conference of the CCF at Regina a year later, bringing along the ten-point program of the LSR (which had been written by Underhill, not Scott as is often reported, and amended by the other members of the group). With some additions and changes this document was adopted as the now-famous Regina Manifesto of the CCF. When, twenty years later, Scott attended the 1950 CCF conference in Vancouver to submit his resignation as national chairman, he was astonished to hear an outcry against the suggestion
that some clauses of the manifesto should be brought up to date. Reverent party members protested that it was sacrilege to touch a word of the celebrated document. Scott, who had a vivid recollection of scribbling out a last-minute clause over a cup of coffee just before the program was adopted in Regina, took to his feet as well. “My God,” he said, “I had no idea I was writing a bible.”
In the two decades between these events, Scott ranged the arena of Canadian public affairs like a long-legged socialist nemesis, lashing injustice and social inequity as he saw them. Inevitably, what looked like injustice and inequity to Scott looked like the nation's most valuable institutions to many — and sometimes most — people, and he became a popular clay pigeon for editorial writers. In a typical exchange, Scott flayed R. B. Bennett: “Mr. Bennett asked the Canadian people to put an iron heel on the spreading of socialist and communist ideas . . . Things are coming to a pretty pass when the prime minister incites the people to ruthlessness.”
“Things are coming to a pretty pass." rejoined the Ottawa Journal, “when we must go to a university professor for the loose thinking and intemperate language characteristic of (Scott's) address.”
Not long after, Scott said flatly, “personal liberty no longer exists in Canada.” Scott himself, though, stayed free enough to blast “private corporations that control the greater part of Canadian life,” flail the deportation tribunals sitting under the Immigration Act, denounce archaic prison methods, hit “anachro-
nisms” in the “totally inadequate” BNA Act and urge a “new spirit of confederation" with attendant revisions of the constitution. His stand on Canada's entry into World War II touched off a new fusillade from the press. Scott maintained that "Canada must not be dragged into another useless war just because of our political connections,” and the Winnipeg Free Press maintained that Scott displayed a “blend of blindness and cynicism about Canadian participation in the war." Scott's stand was clarified by his later advocacy of the United Nations, in 1952, on leave from McGill, he led the UN technical assistance team to Burma, where he confirmed his view: "The UN is the route to the international rule of law. Canada should participate militarily and in every other way."
Since his retirement from the national chairmanship of the CCF in 1950. Scott's party exertions have been carried on in the relative tranquility of the CCF
national council, of which he remains a member, and he is one of the strongest advocates of the present endeavor to unite the CCF and the Canadian laborunion movement in a new reform party. Fused with this design for an alignment on the model of the British Labor Party is one of Scott’s subsidiary activities, a modestly endowed foundation named Recherches Sociales (Social Research), of which he is president and guiding genius. The foundation has subsidized a number of books, chiefly in French, by young poets and social-reform groups, and is now preparing a book on modern social planning for Canada. “The intellectuals are doing some rethinking,” Scott explains, “and the interesting thing is that today there is a bridge — a fusion — between French and English thinkers.”
"Frank Scott himself has done more to build a bridge between French and English in Quebec than any other single man,” observes Thérèse Casgrain, the renowned Quebec feminist, and most French Canadians who aren’t opposed to Scott’s political thought agree. In these circles it is difficult to mention Scott’s name without being told, as Mme Casgrain tells an equirer simply, “Frank Scott is a great Canadian.” In other circles—notably among Premier Duplessis’ adherents and the wealthy English-speaking “establishment" of Montreal—the reverse opinion of Scott is more common. Antipathy toward Scott’s views is so strong in J. W. McConnell, a self-made millionaire and proprietor of the Montreal Star, that the Star more than once in the 1940s refused to accept CCF advertisements. After one refusal Scott called on McConnell and asked why the Star turned down socialist advertisements but printed communist ones (a paid announcement of a Tim Buck rally had just appeared in the Star). The publisher, as more than one Montrealer gleefully recalls, leaned over his desk and snapped: “Because they’re not dangerous.”
“Dangerous” in class
Scott’s influence, the Star and the Montreal Gazette assured their editorialpage readers more than once, was also “dangerous” in the classroom. Scott himself, “keeping my politics and my lectures in separate houses,” went on picking up academic honors. He’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, holder of a Guggenheim award, president of the Association of Canadian Law Teachers and has chaired the Canadian Bar Association’s committee on legal research.
W. C. Meredith, dean of the McGill Law School, describes Scott as “unquestionably the outstanding Canadian authority on constitutional and international law,” and says he “would be almost impossible to replace.” In 1955, when Meredith was on a one-year leave of absence. Scott was named acting dean. To many minds it was belated half-recognition; at least three times before, he had been passed over for the dean's office. When Emeritus Professor Stuart LeMesurier retired as dean in 1949, he officially urged Scott's appointment as his successor. On this occasion, although proceedings of the meeting are secret and were the crux of a howling controversy, it is a fact that the chancellor of McGill at the time and the university’s principal, O. S. Tyndale and Cyril James, both backed Scott for the office, as did one member of the board of governors. The other twenty-one governors, under the chairmanship of J. W. McConnell, Scott's old antagonist at the Montreal Star, voted against the appointment.
Not long after this incident. Thérèse Casgrain asked Scott why he didn’t give up teaching to practice law, a switch
that would almost certainly make him a wealthy man. "The law needs good teachers even more than it needs good lawyers,” Scott said, and the point is pivotal in his view of the law'. “Canadians judge the law by lawyers. That’s like judging religion by priests. We need to elevate the position of law in Canada in order to elevate the rule of law.”
This concept of law as the real ruler of the land has made Scott an unrelenting critic of loopholes in the BNA Act, and he is no more hopeful of seeing them plugged by the Diefenbaker Bill of Rights than most other experts who’ve spoken out on the subject. In Scott’s opinion, "We have to complete the transfer of sovereignty from the U. K. to Canada. Then I’d like to sec a fundamental Bill of Rights that would bind on federal and provincial jurisdictions both. Mr. Diefenbaker’s law doesn’t bind on anybody. But the bill also has to be amendable— no country should shackle itself to an unamendable constitution.”
This analysis is not new; Scott has been saying much the same thing, on the speaker's platform and in articles, pamphlets and books, for thirty years. The complete bibliography of Scott's published writing up to the beginning of 1958 contains 593 numbered entries, sixty under the heading Books and Pamphlets and 147 more under the heading Periodical Articles, most of them dealing w'ith constitutional law, politics and social reconstruction. There are 101 entries under Literary Criticism, thirty-five under Letters, tw'enty-nine that he w'rote in collaboration, eleven translations from French, and the largest group, Scott's 210 published poems.
No “lawyer’s lawyer”
Poetry is as preponderant in Scott’s image of himself as it is in his bibliography. “I’m not a lawyer's lawyer,” he observes. “After all. three of my degrees are in arts and only one in law.” (Scott has a BA from Bishop’s College, Que., BA and B.Litt, from Magdalen College, Oxford, and BCL from McGill. In 1958 Dalhousie stepped in w'here McGill hung back by making him an honorary LLD.) His high-ceilinged old house in the Westmount district of Montreal, is stamped with the signs of the artist—indeed, two artists, since the w'alls are hung largely w'ith canvases by his wife, Marion Scott, a nationally recognized non-objective painter and art teacher whose studio is on the second floor. This is w'here Scott plays Mozart on the piano, whites poetry, and entertains — a roomful of young Frenchand English-Canadian poets whose ideas cross-pollinatc under Scott’s approving eye; visiting international celebrities, like French poet Pierre Emmanuel; or lesser-known but important artists like English sculptress Gertrude Hermes, who was a house guest for some time during World War II.
She set out to resolve the problem of sculpting Scott’s head, a strong-boned dolichocephalic vault with a renaissance nose and a mobile mouth. The right eye is blind, a talisman of Scott's boyhood enthusiasm for experimental and unfortunately explosive chemistry. The head Miss Hermes sculpted, in bronze with the name Frank Scott at the base, is in the Montreal Museum of Fine Art. Although the museum was anxious to buy the work, it hesitated to display anything w'ith a name as controversial as Frank Scott's carved into it. “I suggested they rename it ‘Son of Archdeacon F. G. Scott,’ the model chuckles, “so they bought it and left it alone.”
in Quebec City and the famous padre of Canada's First Division in World War I, that Scott picked up his first taste for poetry. The churchman w'as himself the author of a dozen books of poetry, and Scott’s childhood was punctuated by regular verse readings by his father. But it wasn't until he was back at McGill studying law in the late Twenties after three years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford that Scott became one of the leaders of a group of young poets w'ho sprang the forms and images of twentieth-century poetry on Canada. "Publishing being
what it was in the Thirties," Scott recalls, “we had to do our own.” With A. .1. M. Smith and other collaborators he founded or helped edit a long string of “little" magazines—McGill Fortnightly Review, The Canadian Mercury, Preview, Northern Review. The Canadian Forum and. much later, the Tamarac Review, the hist two of which are still publishing.
Most of Scott's early verse appeared in their pages, and during the Thirties and Forties he scourged the established order in stinging metrics much as he hounded it in the political forum.
He ripped metered strips of skin off R. B. Bennett:
His whole life work hud dug the grove too deep
In which the people’s hopes and fortunes sleep.
And oil Mackenzie King:
Truly he will he remembered
Wherever men honor ingenuity.
Ambiguity, inactivity, and political longevity.
And, even more briefly, off The Barons:
For them, the
For ns, the
In a more frolicsome mood, he lampooned the Canadian Authors' Association ("A society,” as he describes it. "of some thousands of the greatest Canadian writers”) in a mocking, four-line verse that is one of that group's chief claims to fame:
O Camilla. O Camilla, Oh can
A day go by without new authors springing
To paint the native maple, and to plan
More ways to set the selfsame welkin ringing?
Most of Scott’s poems, like these, are satiric. But he has a lyric vein that he sometimes taps:
We shall find, each, the deep sea in the end
A stillness, and a movement only of tides
That wash a world, whole continents between.
Flooding the estuaries of alien lands.
By 1947. when Scott’s verse was first published in book form in a volume called Overture, even his old adversary the Montreal Star was quick to concede in an unsigned review: “From the point of technique and substance, this first collection of Frank Scott's poetry ranks with the foremost of Canadian poetry."
Two subsequent volumes. Events and Signals (1954) and The Eye of the Needle
(1957), have confirmed most Canadian critics in this estimate of Scott’s verse. His poems are in fifteen Canadian and international poetry anthologies.
The lines of Scott’s next verse collection, a cycle of translations from the work of young French-Canadian poets which will be published next year, were “hammered out word by word with the authors, right here,” Scott says, stamping his foot on his living-room carpet. One of them may have asked Scott how he found it possible to be a courtroom lawyer, teacher and a political reformer, but remain a poet above all; Scott probably replied in the same terms he used in the same room not long ago.
"T he law is crystalized politics. And a good constitution." said the foremost authority on Canada's, “is like a good poem. Both are concerned with the spirit of man.” if