Remembering All that Roy McMurtry Achieved for People with Disabilities

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update United for a Barrier-Free Ontario for All People with Disabilities Website:
Twitter: @aodaalliance

April 9, 2024


Many Great Accomplishments for People with Disabilities Never Reach the Headlines

Last month, Canada lost a giant of Canadian politics and law. Roy McMurtry had been Ontario’s Attorney General for a decade and later Chief Justice of Ontario’s Superior Court. He then went on to serve as Chief Justice of Ontario’s Court of Appeal.

Political leaders, community leaders and political columnists have all marked his death with speeches and articles recounting his many achievements over his long and impressive career. However, it is also important to honour his memory by highlighting his accomplishments for people with disabilities. These did not lead to headlines during his lifetime but have made a major difference in our lives.

AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky recounted Roy McMurtry’s biggest accomplishments for people with disabilities in a guest column that ran last week in the Toronto Star’s Metroland papers. These run online in communities around Ontario. He described those accomplishments from a broad disability perspective and from a very personal perspective. We set out that guest column below, as it appeared in the April 5, 2024 Muskoka Region publication.

Today, April 9, 2024, this guest column was quoted in the Ontario Legislature during tributes in memory of Roy McMurtry. NDP MPP Lise Vaugeois’s tribute in the Legislature concluded with these words about Roy McMurtry:

He was a model politician and jurist who put fairness and inclusiveness at the forefront of his work. In the words of lawyer and disability activist David Lepofsky: “May we each be a Roy McMurtry to someone else.” May we each be responsible for opening more doors to make our province more humane and inclusive.

What You Can Do to Help

Share this guest column with others. Encourage people to learn from the role model that Roy McMurtry provided. In our own way, we can each try to open doors for others facing unfair barriers.

Muskoka Region April 5, 2024

Originally posted at OPINION

May we each be a Roy McMurtry to someone else: Remembering Ontario’s former attorney general and chief justice who helped open up the legal system to people with disabilities Roy McMurtry – 1932-2024
By David Lepofsky

David Lepofsky is a retired lawyer who chairs the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.

Ontario is honouring the late Roy McMurtry’s important high-profile achievements for Canada. I’d like to honour his many less-visible enduring accomplishments, such as those serving unmet needs of people with disabilities.

His pivotal road in the 1982 patriation of Canada’s Constitution, with its new Charter of Rights, was vital for people with disabilities. People with disabilities tenaciously fought to get Parliament to amend the proposed Charter by adding equality for people with “disabilities. That amendment became the only new right Parliament added.

In 1982, we also relentlessly campaigned to get Ontario’s Tories to amend the Ontario Human Rights Code to ban disability discrimination in jobs, goods and services. A Tory caucus backlash threatened to kill the bill. McMurtry was a key player in quelling that backlash.

I was active in the campaign to win disability rights in the Charter and Ontario’s Human Rights Code but never lobbied McMurtry about these, or even knew him. Decades later, I got to thank him.

In 1982, as attorney general, he appointed a young Rosalie Abella to lead a judicial inquiry into whether lawyers adequately served the legal needs of people with disabilities. The resulting 1983 Abella report called for dramatic reform to legal education. For years, I’ve taught law students and lawyers how to serve clients with disabilities, including as Osgoode’s 2014 Roy McMurtry Clinical Fellow, fulfilling Abella’s vision, which traces back to McMurtry.

In 2005, Chief Justice McMurtry appointed a committee to identify ways to make courts accessible for people with disabilities. I’ve had the honour of working to drive change, serving on that committee and its successor.

My perspective is also deeply personal. In 1982, I was a young blind lawyer suffering huge difficulties landing my first job. I’d graduated with honours from Osgoode Hall and gotten a Master of Laws at Harvard. Nevertheless, it was a depressing struggle just to get an interview.

My plight reached McMurtry. He opened hitherto closed doors for me, believing I deserved a chance. Thanks to him, I enjoyed a wonderful 33-year career arguing civil, constitutional and criminal cases for Ontario, including 30 in the Supreme Court of Canada and 200 in the Ontario Court of Appeal. Those experiences also equipped me with the skills I needed to do volunteer advocacy for disability rights in my spare time and now in retirement. When the media quotes me calling out some disability injustice, it all traces back to McMurtry.

McMurtry never sought any praise for his efforts for me. He never discussed it publicly, respecting my privacy. I kept it largely to myself until my retirement party, which McMurtry graciously attended. In my retirement speech to my Crown colleagues, I told my story and urged my colleagues to be a Roy McMurtry to someone who needs a fair chance.

I’ve been honoured to know him as Attorney General McMurtry (my boss), as Chief Justice of Ontario, where he heard my courtroom legal arguments, and later, as Roy, my friend and mentor. May he rest in peace. May we each be a Roy McMurtry to someone else.