Articles

THE BRAINIEST SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY

So many prime ministers, provincial premiers, chief justices, MPs and millionaires have been turned out by Dalhousie Law School that it's become famous as Nova Scotia's biggest brain-export factory

David MacDonald March 1 1954
Articles

THE BRAINIEST SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY

So many prime ministers, provincial premiers, chief justices, MPs and millionaires have been turned out by Dalhousie Law School that it's become famous as Nova Scotia's biggest brain-export factory

David MacDonald March 1 1954

THE BRAINIEST SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY

So many prime ministers, provincial premiers, chief justices, MPs and millionaires have been turned out by Dalhousie Law School that it's become famous as Nova Scotia's biggest brain-export factory

David MacDonald

ONE DAY last year when he was touring the Maritime provinces George Drew took time out in Halifax to visit an ivy-encrusted building on the campus of Dalhousie University and deliver a speech to a student gathering. Almost immediately be referred jokingly to Nova Scotia’s supposed suspicion of “Upper Canada” and suggested that perhaps the boot should be on the other foot.

“So many important and high-ranking jobs in Canada are held by former Nova Scotians,” he said, “that someone should write an article entitled The Oppressed Upper Canadians.” After a moment, Drew added: “Most of these men are graduates of Dalhousie Law School.”

The students, all undergraduates of that institution, accepted the compliment calmly, with only a sprinkling of polite applause. “It was,” as one put it later, “merely a statement of fact.”

For Dalhousie Law School, from its youngest freshman in horn-rimmed glasses to its most elderly alumnus, is well-aware of its nationwide reputation for mass-producing what is often dubbed Nova Scotia’s chief export—brains.

It has been called a training school for great men. Its enrollment, except in the crowded immediate postwar years, has never topped a hundred and fifty but Dalhousie has given Canada more prime ministers, provincial premiers, cabinet ministers, supreme court judges, university presidents and

otherwise weighty figures than any other school in the country.

In the seventy years since Dalhousie began quite inauspiciously to teach law in rented rooms, Canada has had ten prime ministers. Dalhousie saw three of them first; Sir John Thompson and Sir Robert Borden as teachers, and Viscount Bennett as a student.

It has also graduated a prime minister of colonial Newfoundland, five premiers of Nova Scotia and two each of New Brunswick and British Columbia. Dalhousie has given up keeping score on its alumni who have become MPs, MPPs and ministers of the Crown. But Bennett had three of them as cabinet ministers— Hon. Edgar Rhodes, Hon. R. B. Hanson and Hon. C. H. Cahan and in Mackenzie King’s wartime cabinet there were five—J. L. Ilsley, now the Chief Justice of Nova Scotia, Angus L. Macdonald, Nova Scotia’s Premier; Col. J. L. Ralston, Norman Rogers and J. E. Michaud, Chief Justice of the Queen’s Bench in New Brunswick.

In law, Dalhousians have sat on every provincial supreme court in the country, the Supreme Court of Canada, the Exchequer Court and a host of

lesser benches. Canada’s member of the International Court of Justice at The Hague is John Read, a former Dalhousie dean. One in every fourteen of Dalhousie’s law grads eventually has Mr. Justice or Judge for his title.

Three current Canadian university presidents launched their careers at what was quaintly but accurately called “The Little Red College by the Sea” -Sidney Smith, of the University of Toronto, another ex-dean; Norman MacKenzie, of the University of British Columbia, and Raymond Gushue, of Memorial University College, Newfoundland. Others have vaulted from Dalhousie to the top of the business world. Gilt-edged cases in point are Sir James Dunn, president of Algoma Steel; Henry Borden, president of Brazilian Traction; and Gerald Godsoe, vice-president of the British American Oil Company.

Its alumni roles read like a Canadian Who’s Who, past and present, and many authorities regard Dalhousie as leader among the twelve law schools in the land, though in size it is a poor seventh. D. Park Jamieson, a bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada, which runs Canada’s biggest law school, Osgoode Hall, once called Dalhousie “Canada’s most outstanding law school.”

When he spoke at the opening of a new law building at the University of British Columbia two years ago, Prime Minister St. Laurent, himself a lawyer, noted, “Dean (George) Curtis came to Vancouver from Dalhousie Law School, which we in Laval are inclined to regard as our only possible peer among law school’s in Canada. The influence and traditions of Dalhousie are certain to be reflected here.”

The traditions of the law school on the Atlantic coast, praised by the Prime Minister as far off as the Pacific coast, have a lot to do with the way Dalhousie students apply themselves. Aware of following in the footsteps of great men, they feel they have a reputation to uphold, so they put the emphasis on mental rather than physical exercise and rate brain-sharpening debates as a major sport. They also subscribe to the theory that a scholar must be able to reason, not just memorize. This idea is constantly dinned into them by their instructors.

“Dalhousie Law School,” says Horace Read, the present dean, “is more concerned with the principles of the law, with making the law make sense, than with mechanical textbook knowledge.”

Read, a short round-faced man of fifty-five, is a native of New Brunswick who graduated from two Nova Scotia universities —Acadia and Dalhousie— and topped off his education at Harvard. Before joining the staff of Dalhousie Law School he was professor of law at the University of Minnesota for sixteen years. Although he’s quiet and soft-spoken, he learned to bark orders during the war when he was a commander in the Royal Canadian Navy. From 1943 to 1946 he headed a committee which revised the Canadian Naval Regulations, a task which won him an OBE. Changes he recommended helped to place enlisted men on a better footing and inject a more democratic spirit into the RCN. Read, although his approach to most problems is unorthodox, is more orthodox as a law school dean than his immediate predecessor, Vincent MacDonald, who had a unique system of jolting his students into a state of intense concentrat ion.

Each time a new class entered the school he spent the entire first term deliberately misleading them. “I used to feed them the most unmitigated rot,” he has said. “At first they swallowed it whole. After a few weeks, if they hadn’t realized what I was up to, I told them.” The effect of this was a super-sceptical student body which would not accept the dean’s word for the time of day, without first checking. “They started asking questions,” says MacDonald “—and thinking for themselves.”

Once when he caught an entire class trustingly writing down what he was saying, MacDonald stopped abruptly. “Put down those damned pencils,” he roared, “—and think!”

If thinking lawyers are Dalhousie’s chief output, politicians have been its most notable byproduct. This is no accident. The die was cast the night the school was opened in 1883. Its first dean, Richard Chapman Weldon, declared then, “We have not forgotten the duty which every university owes to the state ... of teaching young men the science of government. In our free government we all have

political duties . . . and these duties will be best performed by those who have given them most thought.”

“Ever since,” says Dean Read, “Dalhousie has taught its men that a legal education fits them for public leadership and that they have a responsibility to use it for more than mere money-making.”

To this day, whether from a nohle sense of public duty or a grubby suspicion that politics, too, sometimes pays, Dalhousie lawyers always seem to say yes on nomination day. Naturally, this is most evident in Nova Scotia. In last year’s provincial elections, out of a hundred and one candidates, twenty-seven—better than one in four—were Dalhousie law graduates.

Most of these were also graduates of Dalhousie’s mock parliament, a not-too-frivolous imitation of the House of Commons, started in 1886 by Dean Weldon as a gimmick for teaching parliamentary procedure. Each year since, the law students have picked a Government and a Loyal Opposition and some choice issues to debate. The government in power at Ottawa is usually the government in power at Dalhousie, but not always. Last year, because the Liberals had been in so long, the students agreed it was “time for a change” and elected the Progressive Conservatives. Had the

nation subsequently followed suit it wouldn’t have surprised many Dalhousians; their mock parliament has been uncannily prophetic.

For instance when Dick Bennett (Class of ’93) was at Dalhousie he was named make-believe Conservative prime minister. As everyone knows, R. B. Bennett became the real thing. In the House of ’96, Jimmy Dunn, of Bathurst, N.B., was Minister of Finance, a fitting portfolio for Sir James who became one of Canada’s wealthiest industrialists. As early as 1901, Dalhousie decided to make Newfoundland part of Canada. One youth who took part in that debate was Dick Squires. As Sir Richard he was later Prime Minister of the “oldest colony.” The fact that the country ultimately went bankrupt under him, Dalhousians point out, hastened Newfoundland’s union with Canada.

At various times the mock parliament has formed Maritime unions, seceded from Canada, joined the United States, annexed the United States, legalized polygamy and outlawed liquor. As long as half a century ago it debated free legal aid, which has since come about, and compulsory military training, which hasn’t. As a further aid to lawmakers, Dalhousie now boasts a legislative research centre, the only one of its kind in the world. It was set up in 1950 by Dean Read as a co-operative venture between the law school and the Nova Scotia government.

For practical courtroom training, Dalhousie has a Moot Court as old as the law school itself. Students are required to argue at least one mock case a year. The trials, ranging from trivial negligence cases to multi-million-dollar lawsuits, are heard by three student judges, wearing black gowns and grave expressions. At the end of the year the best arguments are given again before a captive bench of genuine supreme court judges.

A Search for Initials

The Moot Court; is a tradition and Dalhousie won’t stray from it a bit. When an attempt was made recently to make a slight change in the operation of the court, third-year (senior) students were outraged. They campaigned behind the slogan, “What was good enough for R. B. Bennett is good enough for us.” The status remained quo.

If Dalhousie’s devotion to tradition smacks of old-time religion, its high altar was the scarred old lecture benches that Weldon put in the first school. Once when Sidney Smith was dean, Governor-General Bessborough dropped in on a mission of state.

“Quickly, where are the benches?” he wanted to know. Smith led him to the Moot Court room. Bessborough searched over the carved initials that covered the benches. “Here!” he shouted triumphantly, “I’ve found them! The Prime Minister said I would!” He pointed to a neat “RBB,” turned and departed.

When the law school finally moved into a newer, ivy-covered stone building on the Dalhousie campus in 1952 the benches were unaccountably burned. Some old grads felt it was the worst blow to the Maritimes’ heritage since Confederation. Furthermore, it had broken with tradition.

Tradition for Dalhousie University traces back to the War of 1812 when an expeditionary force from Halifax captured Castine, Maine, a port from which American privateers had been playing hob with British shipping. Castine was held for seven months. In that time the Americans were forced to pay customs duties on everything they bought from the British. When the British left they took back to Halifax a tidy £11,500 in taxes.

Casting about for a way to spend the money, Lord Dalhousie, lieutenantgovernor of Nova Scotia, decided to found a college with it. On the Grand Parade, nestling at the foot of towering Citadel Hill, he erected a big Georgian grey-stone building and hired a small staff. But because Nova Scotia already had two colleges, Pictou Academy and King’s in Windsor, Dalhousie did little business. To meet expenses part of the building was rented out to a candymaker, the basement to a wine merchant. Dal was finally incorporated as a university in 1863, with six professors and sixty pupils.

By 1879 its academic rating was impressive. So, unhappily, was its accumulated debt, when George Munro, a wealthy American publisher, came to the rescue. Munro, a native of Pictou, N.S., had gone to New York as a tendollar-a-week printer and become the dime-novel king of North America. From a fortune earned by such stwring epics as Old Sleuth the Detective and the Fireside Companion, he gave Dalhousie, within five years, three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Forty thousand of it was given in 1883 to establish a chair of law. At that time in Canada young men learned their law as apprentices in lawyer’s offices. Dalhousie was the first university in Canada to undertake the job of producing lawyers.

Its first law dean, Richard Chapman Weldon, didn’t have a law degree himself and had never practiced nor taught law. He was something of a physical and intellectual giant. Six feet three inches in his shoes, weighing two hundred and twenty pounds, he was a handsome stern-looking man with the face and mane of a lion and the gentle manner of a lamb. A village schoolteacher in Norton, N.B., he saved enough money from teaching and odd jobs to go to Yale University where he earned a doctor of philosophy degree. Later, working his way to Europe on a sailing ship, he studied international law at hoary Heidelberg, in Germany. His health broke before he could finish his course and he went home to teach at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. Weldon, then thirty-three, was a high-minded scholar and philosopher when he arrived in Halifax. Accordingly, the curriculum he drew up was built on the large challenging subjects of international and constitutional law. It was designed to make students dig beneath the rules that govern society and find the underlying principles.

On a drizzly October evening in 1883 Halifax turned out its judges, lawyers and dignitaries in fx'ock coats and wing collax-s to open the new law school. The official ceremonies were held in the legislative assembly chamber because the school, rented rooms in a high school, wasn’t big enough to hold them.

“No more eligible site for a great university can be found in Canada,” Weldon said solemnly that night, “The Light, of course, should come from the East.” Almost seventy years later the breezy Dalhousie Gazette was to shout tauntingly, “Few people, other than a few die-hard Upper Canadians, will today dispute the fact that the Light has, indeed, come from the East.”

Within a year of its founding the law school had a library of three thousand books. Most of them were donated by Halifax lawyers. Others were craftily stolen. The librarian, John T. Ruimer, was a resourceful individual who used to visit law offices in the city and smuggle out books under the flowing cloak he always wore for such missions.

The times helped to shape Dalhousie Law School. Halifax of the 1880s was in its golden age. By the standards of the rest of Canada it was still a large, rich and cultured city, a naval base, army garrison and a port with a fleet that sailed and traded around the world. It was the home of government and of the courts. Politicians could still remember with awe Nova Scotia’s great orator and statesman, Joe Howe, who had died only a decade before. In the forty years before the law school was founded, people all over the Mariâmes had had their interest in politics whetted by the fight for responsible government, Confederation and the struggle to preserve their trade, hard hit by tariffs and the trend of industry to centralize in Ontario and Quebec. The talk at Dalhousie revolved around politics and this bred polit'eians.

Weldon helped. He is best remembered in Ottawa for an epigram, coined during a controversy with the United States. “They are a people of sixty millions, conscious of their strength,” he declared. “We are a people of six millions, conscious of our rights.” Weldon’s words, headlined across the country, became a Canadian declaration of faith and policy. But politics sadly disillusioned him. Guileleas himself, he was shocked by the rough-andtumble fighting, the conniving of less dedicated men. Weldon finally broke with the Conservative Party when it sponsored a bill to provide for separate schools in Manitoba. He stood for reelection as a free-thinking independent who championed nondenominational education and was soundly beaten.

Dalhousie then, as now, was a relaxed informal school where professors talked with students, not at them, and the students were urged to argue among themselves and with their learned teachers. Once when a part-time lecturer — a noted judge — gave an opinion in class, one precocious pupil piped up, “Lord Eldon, with whom I agree, has a different opinion.” The student was the future Sir James Dunn.

Dean Weldon not only taught lawyers, he got many of them started in business. When a law firm in Calgary wrote asking for an energetic young man, Weldon recommended Richard Bennett. Bennett gave up a mediocre law practice in New Brunswick and went west to begin a spectacular career in business and politics.

As his school became known throughout North America, and was copied by many others, Weldon was offered many better-paying jobs at bigger universities. He turned them ail down. Halifax offered all he wanted from life, a chance to study and teach law and stay close to nature. An ardent outdoorsman, he spent most of his spare time tramping through the woods that surrounded the city. Every morning one winter he chopped a hole in the ice over the North West Arm and took a dip before classes started. When he was forty-seven, he swam ten miles across one of Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lakes while his second wife, Louisa, rowed a boat beside him. They were honeymooning at the time.

Weldon retired in 1914. When he died eleven years later at the age of seventy-five, R. B. Bennett launched a campaign for a hundred thousand dollars to establish a chair in the old dean’s honor. He personally contributed twenty-five thousand dollars.

Weldon’s personal interest in his

students became a tradition with later deans. There was—and still is—an unwritten rule in the law school that no member of the faculty should ever close the door of his office. Students trooped in to talk about family troubles, sports, alcoholism, jazz, the stock market— and law. The warm relationship gives Dalhousie a homey intimacy. The occasional antics of its remarkably unprofessorial professors has helped too. Though today Sidney Smith presides over the University of Toronto with great dignity, he cut many capers as a lecturer and dean at Dalhousie. Celebrating a raise in salary, he once sped around the corridors of the law school on a bicycle. He nearly ran over his president, Dr. Stanley MacKenzie. “That man,” said MacKenzie testily, “will never grow up.”

To liven up lectures on important but monumentally dull subjects, Smith and his chief assistant, Vincent MacDonald, hit upon the idea of personal feuds. During a lecture MacDonald would give an opinion on a point in, say,

torts. In his next lecture to the same class, Smith would pointedly contradict him, implying that MacDonald must have cheated to get his degree. Once when an entire class gleefully threw Smith’s opinion back at him MacDonald looked bemused. “I’m sure you must have misunderstood him,” he said. “Not even the dean would say such a damn fool thing as that.”

’Though it is widely acclaimed, Dalhousie is not without its detractors. “Any time two Dalhousie lawyers get together outside the Maritimes,” says Dean C. A. Wright of Toronto University law school, “they start boasting about their Great Men.” Wright has a theory about it. “Horn-tooting has always been a good Maritime trait,” he said recently. “Dalhousie has just made a tradition of it.”

Fortunately for Dalhousie University as a whole — it also teaches medicine, arts and science, dentistry, pharmacy, and engineering—its law graduates do more than boast. Often they send money home. Viscount Bennett, who had to work as a student librarian to pay his law school tuition, gave the university more than a million dollars over twenty years and even bought the mansion that Dalhousie presidents live in. Recently Sir James Dunn set aside a quarter of a million dollars to support a sixth chair of law at his alma mater for twenty-five years.

Dalhousie is frequently compared to Harvard University, the venerable mother temple of legal education in North America which has produced such a heavy share of American leaders. A few years back a visitor told the then-dean, Vincent MacDonald, “You know, Dalhousie is second only to Harvard.”

“Yes,” MacDonald replied, his eyes atwinkle, “Harvard has a larger enrollment.”