MONTREAL — The Lord Reading Law Society, which has represented the interests of Jewish lawyers in Montreal since its founding 60 years ago, will receive the Medal of the Bar of Montreal next month.
The presentation takes place at the Rentrée judiciaire, the annual ceremony marking the reopening of the courts after the summer recess, Sept. 4 at the Montreal courthouse. Presided over by Quebec chief justice Michel Robert, this event traditionally draws a wide representation of the city’s legal community and the province’s justice officials.
Lawyer Ian Solloway, who is heading the society’s 60th anniversary celebrations, said it is very rare for the medal to be awarded to an association. For the nearly 1,000-member society, he said, it symbolizes the high regard the Jewish community enjoys today, in contrast to the pervasive anti-Semitism that prompted Jewish lawyers of the day to band together in 1948.
“This is a tremendous honour. Only two or three other times has the medal been presented to a group,” Solloway said.
In a letter to the society, Stephen Schenke, bâtonnier of the Montreal bar, wrote: “The Lord Reading’s passion for social justice, its tradition of legal excellence, its contribution to the judiciary and to the Montreal bar are just a few of the significant contributions that we wish to recognize.
“We also believe that by honouring the [society] we are recognizing the diversity of the Montreal bar. By highlighting your 60 years of success, we are sending a message of welcome to all ethnic groups in Montreal and cherishing values of pluralism that are so important for the future of Montreal and Quebec.”
The catalyst for the founding of the society was an incident in 1948 when the Quebec bar unwittingly booked its annual convention at Mont Tremblant Lodge, which did not admit Jews, Solloway said. There is documentation showing that when the lodge owner, American millionaire Joe Ryan, was approached by the bar about this discriminatory policy, he replied that, it being fall – the off-season – there would likely not be many guests around who would object to a Jewish presence.
The bar’s bâtonnier Gustave Monnette apologized to Jewish lawyers at a meeting convened at the Montefiore Club, but said it was too late to change the venue and urged Jews to attend anyway.
But they decided to boycott the convention, and soon after that, the Lord Reading was founded, named for Rufus Daniel Isaacs, the early 20th-century British lawyer who became a cabinet minister, ambassador and viceroy of India, earning the title of Marquess of Reading. It was a reminder perhaps of how far behind, not only Quebec, but Canada was in elevating Jews to high public office.
The early society’s mandate was to lobby for fair representation of Jews on the bar and the bench. As a result of the Tremblant incident, the Montreal bar amended its constitution to ensure that at least one Jew would be on the bar’s council at all times.
The society’s first president, the late Benjamin Robinson, also became the first Jewish representative on that council.
Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the society’s members, the late Harry Batshaw, in 1950, became the first Jew appointed to a superior court in Canada, when he was named to Quebec Superior Court.
A Lord Reading alumnus, Supreme Court of Canada justice Morris Fish, will be keynote speaker at an invitation-only gala dinner Sept. 18 at the Montefiore Club, which has been the society’s base for more than 30 years. A special guest that night will be Stephen Greenwald, president of the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.
Although discrimination is not an issue today, Solloway believes the society remains relevant. “We are not a ‘dead poets’ society,’ as some people have suggested. We are more active than ever.”
Lord Reading was the first association of its kind in Canada, and remains unique and independent, he said. “We are the collective voice of Jewish lawyers vis à vis the greater legal community and government.”
One goal is to promote closer ties with the American and international associations of Jewish lawyers, he said.
As it was from the beginning, the society is a social group for Jewish lawyers and notaries (and a small number of non-Jews today), and provides a forum for continuing legal education.
Over the years, some 350 speakers, many of them leading legal or political figures, have addressed the society. In 2002, when Solloway was president, Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin graced the speaker’s podium. Currently, the society organizes five dinner lectures a year for members.
“That speakers of this calibre accept the society’s invitation to speak is an indication of the esteem in which the society and the Jewish legal community are held,” Solloway said.
For more than 25 years, it has sponsored an annual lecture on human rights, at which it occasionally bestows an award to an exceptional person in that field. In recent years, recipients have included Gen. Roméo Dallaire and former McGill University law dean Peter Leuprecht, now the United Nations special representative for human rights in Cambodia.
More than 40 society members have received judicial appointments, including the late Alan B. Gold, the first Jewish Quebec chief judge (1970) and Superior Court chief justice (1983).
Sylviane Borenstein became the first Jewish and female bâtonnier of the Quebec bar in 1990, and the first Jewish woman judge in Quebec when she was appointed to Superior Court in 1994. Five society members have headed the Montreal bar since the appointment of the late Philip Vineberg in 1969.
“We have made a remarkable contribution to the judiciary at all levels,” Solloway said. “Our members have served on all committees of the bar. We speak out on cases of injustice and discrimination when issues come up.”
In keeping with the times, the society has also launched its own website, which is currently under development at www.lordreading.org.