FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Jack Major
January 27, 2015
He answered my query – his email said “call me and we can discuss it.”
Meeting one of Calgary’s most distinguished citizens was, as it turned out, not that difficult. My preparation, like most interviews I do, was minimal – I prefer to read-up on what Google has to offer après-interview. I like my first impressions of someone I interview to come from the person rather than what others have written.
Most revealing, of all we talked about, was the phone call I got from him the next morning – following up on something he’d told me that he preferred I treat as ‘off the record’ because it might hurt the feelings of family members of a former colleague.
I admit, with some trepidation, I thought my best tactic would be to simply ask some open background questions and see how he would – or would not – open up. I was at moments amazed, and then not surprised.
His simple explanations of the path he’s taken have been fortuitous, funny and full of anecdotes – many of which I cannot share, but I will treasure!
John C. Major Q.C., distinguished career litigator (regulatory work, medical malpractice were his main areas) former Justice of Alberta Court of Appeal, retired justice of the Supreme Court of Canada – the many degrees of a man who has earned degrees and had many more bestowed upon him, and a Companion of the Order of Canada, a wikipedia page, left-handed – what is the measure of this great Canadian body of work? He is also husband, father, grandfather. Golfer. What could I learn? What would he tell me?
He tells stories – like his first appearance in court, on a foreclosure file, where he obtained the ruling he was supposed to get without opening his mouth. Like the time he interviewed badly with Bell Canada at a campus recruiting event – never even got a letter, yet his classmates all got job offers. Had these events have gone differently he might not have had the distinguished career on the bench.
What contributed most to your success? “ability to see the real issues quickly, ability at brevity, see the problem as something you can do something about, and, keep getting things done.”
What held you back? “I would have liked to be Prime Minister, but I don’t like the politics!, fine measures of timing … ”
In the beginning – influences of mom and dad. Jack was born in Matawa, Ontario. He didn’t grow up in one place. Dad was a CPR telegrapher and station agent, so moving around was what the family did, as dad bid on better jobs. Mom was ‘strength of the family’ who in addition to raising five children, ran the freight operation of those CPR postings.Jack did high school in Espinola, in a Jesuit high school, a Commerce degree at Loyala College in Montreal, a law degree at the University of Toronto. He modestly admits to being a good student; “the object was to get through”. Sports were important – he played hockey at Loyola.
He told me he didn’t have any notion about his route in life. After graduating from Commerce and flunking his interview with Bell Canada [he said asking ‘what kind of pension plan do you have?’ tanked the interview] he returned to work at the Espinola pulp mill where he’d done summer work through school. His brother suggested going to law school. After graduation, someone suggested he check out Calgary. He came here for a year .. but he stayed.
Jack met his wife Helene Provencher at Loyala. Helene followed him to Calgary, worked at Scurry Rainbow – and in due course they married. Four children followed. He talks proudly of his three sons, lawyers all, doing very well in their careers. He beams talking about Helene’s prowess in the duplicate-bridge world. But he tears-up discussing his eldest, his daughter Suzan, who passed away in 2013. The story of her life, brilliant successes in academia and art are obvious points of pride and love – and her tragic death pains him greatly still.
I asked about his route to appointment to the bench – and his experience on Canada’s Supreme Court. He was being considered for an appointment when a western seat became vacant upon Dickson’s retirement. That appointment went to Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Stephenson. Jack was then appointed to fill that seat on the Court of Appeal. When Stephenson stepped down from the Supreme Court for personal reasons short into his term, the Supreme Court seat was offered to Jack. He talked about it, much like his Bell Canada interview and first court appearance as one of those strange events if right place-right time events and modestly discounts that he was good, deserving, worthy etc ..
Was it lonely, going to Ottawa, being new in town and somewhat removed from everyone by sitting on the court? “You have to make friends. I joined a golf club – we met lots of people there.”
What did you like most about sitting on the Supreme Court? “There is a challenge – you have to remember that it is the last court. It is not infallible, but it is last.”
The Order of Canada? “nice to get, but I try to keep it in perspective. Lots of people who should have it, don’t.”
What do you think of Jim Prentice?
… I think he has done a very deft job, taking over from Redford’s mess.
Of Stephen Harper?
… paid attention. He’s a shy person – intelligent, doing a good job with the economy.
… he is smart enough, but I disagree with his policies.
… I can’t imagine him running this country – he thinks like a child.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I’ve never been a worrier.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… taking courses in constitutional law from Bora Laskin. I did well!
… I like doing legal work. Helping people with litigation files. Giving opinions. Golf at the Calgary Country Club [15 handicap].
What do you read?
… lots! … been reading all of Churchill’s books. I read Tony Blair’s book – didn’t find it very interesting.
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