BORN: St Columban, Quebec • 29 November 1898
DIED: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan • 12 November 1995
Late in his life, Emmett Hall summed up his amazing career: “Doors opened, I fell through them.” This was a typically blunt but also perceptive judg¬ ment, since Hall usually made his mark by being in the right place at the right time. But good timing or not, his influence was remarkable.
In a variety of fields, Hall affected the everyday lives of Canadians of his time as no one else.Few could have predicted that sort of legacy for Hall in the late 1950s. He was a small-town lawyer in Saskatchewan, respected but obscure.
The Flails had emigrated from Quebec to catch the pre-war wheat boom half a century earlier, and now had put down deep roots on the prairie. He was nearly sixty and planned on slowing down. But then, as they say, things started to happen. Newly elected prime minister John Diefenbaker appointed Hall, an old law school classmate, to the bench in 1957.
Hall enjoyed the life of a judge and had risen to chief justice of the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal in 1961 when Diefenbaker appeared again, this time with health care on his mind. Health was the hot political question of the day, especially since Saskatchewan’s Tommy Douglas had fought and won a provincial election in 1960 by promising a universal public medical care program.
Doctors and insurance companies in the rest ofCanada were starting to panic. “Medicare” could limit physicians’ earnings and wipe out a lucrative business for the insurers. Diefenbaker hoped to find some middle ground, and gave Hall time and money to head a wide-ranging royal commission on the subject.
Hall was still little known in 1961, but doctors assumed that any friend of Diefenbaker would be a friend of theirs. They would be proven wrong. The judge was invigorated by his massive assignment and quickly demonstrated that he would run his own show.
He authorized a plethora of academic studies to shed light on the relationship between health and medical costs, and called public hearings across the country. Various interest groups had their day at the hearings, but it was the plight of average Canadians that captured the nation’s attention.
It was evident that thousands of Canadians were not insured against sick¬ ness; the system as it existed was not working for everybody.Hall gained respect with his sincere sympathy for the plight of the poor, and widespread appreciation for his glaring lack of concern for the well-paid doctors.
When the commission’s report was finally released in 1964, Hall’s recommendation was unequivocal: a national, universal health care plan was not only affordable but essential. Doctors were livid, and Diefenbaker, now in opposition, disavowed the commission’s conclusions.
New prime minister Lester Pearson voiced only cautious support, but by 1965 Medicare was a popular policy. Hall, emboldened by his sudden eminence, kept up the pressure in a series of public speeches and, in late 1966, the Liberals finally passed legislation to create Canada’s universal health care system.
Hall raised more than a few eyebrows in establishment circles with his partisan role in the health care debate. His behaviour was decidedly un-judgelike, especially since he had been appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1962. But in the court of public opinion, Hall won a unanimous decision: here was an aging judge who was actually in step with the times.
It was this reputation that made him the ideal choice to head another commission starting in 1965. Ontario wanted an in-depth review of its education system, compre¬ hending philosophy, funding, and the future. Hall once again attacked his task with vigour; everything in the schools was up for debate.
He gave a broad spectrum of educators and academics wide latitude to reconfigure Ontario education completely, and named Lloyd Dennis, a forward-thinking education consultant, as his co-chairman. Their final report, Living and Learning, was released in 1968, and it called for nothing short of a revolution in the way students were educated.
According to Hall and Dennis, grades, exams, and homework should be abolished and a new, student- centred approach implemented that would allow learning at an individual pace. In its entirety, the report served as the touchstone for a new generation of education reformers across the country, and by 1975 many of its recommendations had been adopted.
Hall retired from the bench in 1973, but was called upon frequently by governments to investigate, mediate, and arbitrate. His reputation as a Tory, but also as a populist who put the concerns of average Canadians first, made him a uniquely qualified political problem solver.
His varied experience in the public eye also gave him the ability to appeal directly to the public when it suited his agenda. He often spoke his mind on public issues, especially in defence of Medicare—a policy he had no problem calling his own. His popular, curmudgeonly style and curt manner made him a political force to be reckoned with, even in his nineties.
Emmett Hall ranks as the most important Canadian judge of his century. Ofcourse, what is most notable about his career is not what he was, but what he was not. Hall was neither a doctor nor an educator nor a philosopher. He was never an elected politician. But in a brief public career, with a few choice opportunities, he made a huge difference.