From the back room to the front lines

March 2012

2012 marks the 60th anniversary of the McGill Law Journal as well as the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Canadian Constitution. To reflect on these milestones, the Law Journal’s Annual Lecture in early March featured one of the final drafters of the Constitution Act, Mary Dawson, BCL’66.

Mary DawsonAfter graduating from McGill in 1966 with her civil law degree and her common law degree from Dalhousie in 1970, Mary Dawson (pictured on left) was not sure what she wanted to do next.

“I spoke to a few people who suggested legislative drafting, which sounds intensely boring,” Dawson said with a laugh. “But the people I spoke to convinced me that drafting is… about understanding and developing policy and being able to put a document together in a sensible way and not nearly as dull as it sounds.”

As a result, Dawson decided to join the Department of Justice’s Legislation Section in 1970 and had a hand in drafting such pivotal laws as the Access to Information Act, the Privacy Act, the Canada Health Act, the Official Languages Act and the Young Offenders Act.

Most exciting, perhaps, is her experience as one of the final drafters of the Constitution Act and as the principal legal advisor for the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. In her speech at McGill earlier this month, Dawson shared her thoughts on the Constitutional negotiations, highlighting among the events, the heady days leading up to the 1982 endorsement of the Constitution Act.

The First Minister’s conference, which took place from November 3-5 in 1981, paved the way for the patriation of the Constitution by obtaining agreement from all the provinces except for Quebec; and for the first two days of the conference, Dawson and her team were on stand-by, ready at a moment’s notice to amend and change the Constitutional text as the premiers and senior government officials debated.

For two days, no instructions came.

Then, on the morning of November 5, Dawson received instructions to change the text of the Constitution to include, among other provisions, an amending formula and the Notwithstanding Clause. Discussions lasting through the previous night had yielded agreement from the premiers of nine out of ten provinces – with the notable exception of Quebec – to accept the new Constitution and Trudeau was ready to announce the agreement to the press.

“In 1981, we were still using typewriters and our method of reproduction was photocopying,” Dawson reminded her audience. “Our drafts were prepared on legal size paper and when we adjusted our drafts, our secretaries prepared strips of paper containing the changes, which they then scotch-taped over the changed provision. Sometimes, pages got quite thick, until we could no longer work with them, at which point a new page was created. This led to draft packages with pages of unequal thickness and unequal length.”

As Dawson and her team raced to complete the draft that morning, “the first ministers, with the exception of Quebec, were signing the agreement before the cameras.”

By early afternoon, the draft was copied and distributed to the ministers for consideration. After several hours of vetting, during which Dawson drafted changes on her copy, sent them upstairs to be incorporated – scotch-taped – into the master copy, waited for parallel changes to the French text, and submitted the amended version back to the ministers for approval, the drafting finished at 5 pm that day.

The Canadian Constitution was signed into effect six months later, in April 1982.

“This year is both the 60th anniversary of the McGill Law Journal and the 30th anniversary of the Canadian constitution’s repatriation,” noted its Editor-in-Chief Will Colish. ”This convergence of milestones provided a fitting opportunity for Ms. Dawson to return to McGill, where she completed her B.C.L., and reflect on her experience as one of Canada’s most important constitutional drafters and jurists.”

Dean Daniel Jutras also alluded to both milestones in his opening remarks at the lecture.

“For the past six decades, the McGill Law Journal has maintained the highest standards of scholarly publication… and brought together groups of dedicated and talented students who went on to very distinguished careers in law and public service,” Jutras said, including such legal luminaries as Gerald Le Dain, justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and respected scholar, dean and judge Maxwell Cohen.

“In this context, the choice of Mary Dawson to deliver the Annual Lecture on occasion of the 60th anniversary is a very inspired one. Her career is the paradigm of public service and embodies many of the values of the Faculty’s educational mission and, by extension, the Journal’s own mission.”

During her visit to McGill, Dawson also reflected on how the area of constitutional law has changed since her days as a student.

“When I went to law school, Constitutional Law meant basically division of powers and a few other peripheral subjects,” she said. “Now, when you say to a student Constitutional Law, the immediate thing they think of is the Charter. Things have changed immensely and there’s lot of room in the human rights area, the aboriginal affairs areas and many other areas that have sprung up because of the patriation of the Constitution and the package that was in it.”


Dawson retired from the Department of Justice in 2005 as Associate Deputy Minister and was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2007. In the same year, she was appointed the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, a position she holds to this day.

A podcast audio recording of Dawson’s speech will be available on McGill’s iTunesU channel, and the full version of Dawson’s thoughts will be published as an article in the Journal later this year. For more information: lawjournal.mcgill.ca/.

Interview by Victoria Leenders-Cheng.
Photo by Lysanne Larose.

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