In Memoriam: The Honourable Ron Atkey, PC QC
Saturday, May 13, 2017 at 11:10AM
craigforcese in General Commentary, Ron Atkey, legacy

I learned this week that my friend and colleague Ron Atkey, PC, QC, has died. This is very sudden and sad news, and my thoughts go to his family.

As I process Ron’s passing, I have been reaching for some way to memorialize his accomplishments. One of the few initial avenues open to me is a short essay on this blog.

Ron was the first chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), between 1984-1989.  Both before and after that, he was a partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, where he chaired the Arts, Entertainment and Media Law Group.  He was also a law professor – at Western (1967-1970) and Osgoode Hall Law School (1971-1973). There, he authored an array of law review articles and co-authored Canadian Constitutional Law in a Modern Perspective (1970). In the 1990s, he wrote a novel (The Chancellor’s Foot).  And after his retirement from Oslers in 2007, he returned to parttime teaching at both Western and Osgoode, leading classes in national security law. He worked on the Arar commission of inquiry and was a special advocate under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

I know Ron best from his work on national security law – he was a generous mentor and gave of his time and expertise, including by commenting on and then writing the forward to National Security Law in 2008. He also reviewed and commented on the 2015 book that Kent Roach and I authored on Bill C-51, False Security.

And throughout debates on that law, and more recently in discussions of reformed national security review, Ron served as a confident and compass. I valued his wisdom and experience.

As first chair of SIRC, Ron played an invaluable role. As Peter Gill detailed in his study of national security accountability systems, Ron’s chairmanship “symbolise[d] a willingness to extract as much mileage as possible from the review process”.[1] A later study would note SIRC’s review mechanisms “work to the extent that committed and energetic persons staff them. The first Chairman of SIRC, the Hon. Ron Atkey, was such a person…”.[2]

In Ron’s early career, he was an MP and ultimately the Minister of Employment and Immigration in the Joe Clark government (1979-1980). In the latter role, he was instrumental in Canada’s decision to admit large numbers of Vietnamese refugees – the famous “Boat People”. This was Ron’s greatest professional legacy.

A study of Canada’s immigration policy noted in “June 1979, Ron Atkey, the new Conservative government’s Immigration minister, raised the year’s intake [of Vietnamese newcomers] to 12,000, of whom 4,000 were to be sponsored by private organizations.” Then, in July, “Atkey announced that Canada would increase its intake of refugees to 3,000 a month, with 50,000 to arrive by the end of 1980.”[3] 

Ron was not, of course, singlehandedly responsible for this humanitarian effort – and he would never so claim.  But without Ron, his Cabinet colleague and ally Flora MacDonald, and a supportive Prime Minister, this policy shift would never have happened.  A recent study credits the role of Prime Minister Joe Clark in backing Ron and Flora MacDonald “in the face of skeptical Cabinet colleagues”. It observes: “The courage and leadership of MacDonald and Atkey in fighting for an unprecedented commitment, and in inspiring officials and ordinary Canadians to deliver on it, cannot be overstated.”[4]

With characteristic humility, in a foreword to that same book, Ron attributed much of the success of this humanitarian project to Canadian communities and organizations, and to the public service.

But the details of Ron’s involvement in Canada’s response to the Southeast Asian refugee crisis has almost mythical status in public policy lore. In 1979, Ron read a scholarly manuscript detailing Canada’s appalling conduct in turning away Jewish refugees from the Nazis, authored by Irving Abella and Harold Troper. His response is recorded in those authors’ later book, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948:[5]

Atkey was shocked and dismayed at the seeming historical parallels between the Vietnamese crisis and that of Jewish refugees from Nazis. Already decided on a path of activism on behalf of Vietnamese refugees, he later explained “The article stiffened my resolve to be bold.” True to his word, he convinced the Cabinet that Canada must not turn its back on Vietnamese refugees as it previously had done to Jews. As a result of Atkey’s efforts, Canada’s refugee resettlement program, enriched by unparalleled citizen participation, was second to none among nations of the world.

Ron never abandoned his humanitarian commitments.  Along with other prominent Canadians, he pressed the government to increase its intake of Syrian refugees in 2015. As reported in the Toronto Star:

Ron Atkey believes the 25,000 Syrians Ottawa is promising to re-settle initially is a “noble objective” but he wants Canada to up the ante.

“If Canada can do another 25,000 — that would make a significant contribution in line with Canada’s contribution with the Vietnamese boat people in 1979 to 1980. It will demonstrate to the Americans that they have to do more. We’ll shame them into it, similarly the Australians,” says Atkey, who was immigration minister in the Joe Clark government in 1979 when 50,000 Vietnamese refugees were granted asylum in Canada. By the end of 1980, that number had risen to 60,000.

 “For us to take a dramatic position on the world stage is important. We won a medal from the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. We gained a lot of prestige as a humanitarian country. I think that’s consistent with Canadian tradition.”

In 1988, Morton Beiser interviewed Ron about his role in opening Canada’s doors to Vietnamese refugees:

Over tea served in elegant porcelain cops, Mr. Atkey talk with obvious pride about the role he and his government had played in admitting refugees. I asked him what prompted a country that had not been notably generous in the past to bring in so many Southeast Asians. The former minister recalled the headiness of being a member of the freshly elected cabinet leading a prosperous nation, and seizing on a global issue like the “Boat People” crisis to show both its UK parents and its US big brother that Canada could do better. …

Speaking more personally, Mr. Atkey mused that one is not often given the chance, as he put it, “to make a difference.” … Atkey told me “I didn’t want my children to have to remember me as somebody who said ‘None is too many.’” [6]

There is no chance of that. Ron’s legacy is found in headlines like this: “Vietnamese boat people of more than 3 decades ago now thriving, proud Canadians”.

Ron was a lawyer who helped build Canada’s national security review system, then persistently advocated correction of its shortcomings; a warm mentor who supported more junior colleagues; a politician who put country before party; and, a humanitarian who acted on his principles.

He will be missed. Rest in peace my friend.

 


[1]           Peter Gill, Policing Politics: Security Intelligence and the Liberal Democratic State (Frank Cass, 1994) at 287.

[2]           Jean-Paul Brodeur, “The Globalization of Security and Intellience Agencies: A Report on the Canadian Intelligence Community,” in Peter Gill, Democracy, Law and Security: Internal Security Services in Contemporary Europe (Ashgate, 2003).

[3]           Ninette Kelley and M. J. Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic, University of Toronto Press, 1998, at 407.

[4]           Michael Molley, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt Jensen and Robert Shalka, Running on Empty: Canada in the Indochinese Refugees, 1975-1980 (McGill-Queens University Press, 2017) at 458.

[5]           University of Toronto Press, 1983.

[6]           Morton Beiser, Strangers at the Gate: The “Boat People’s” First Ten Years in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1999) at 41.

Article originally appeared on (http://craigforcese.squarespace.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.