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GUEST COLUMN: Kid from Sarnia became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada

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Stephen McKenna

When I was eight years old, I was asked to speak to my class about the passing of my grandfather; Patrick Kerwin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

In a nervous voice I told them he was a warm and kind man who also happened to be the top judge in Canada. And we called him Papa.

We were always thrilled to see my grandparents, who usually came for Sunday dinner. Though they didn’t spoil us, they did pay attention to each of us as individuals. Papa would sit in the big chair smoking his pipe. If we were unruly, he’d quietly but firmly settle matters, sit back and relight his pipe.

To this day, the aroma of a certain pipe tobacco will take me back to my grandfather’s study with him sitting in the leather rocking chair chatting about his day or watching over a few of us playing on the floor. We also visited him at his office, touring the nooks of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Patrick Grandcourt Kerwin was born Oct. 25, 1889, on Essex Street in Sarnia and had two siblings. His father was a Great Lakes Captain who owned and sailed two ships, the Sovereign and the Sligo. I can easily imagine young Patrick running down to the docks to watch the ships.

In 1894, his father ended his sailing career with the purchased of a liquor store on Front Street. He died in 1898, leaving his wife with three young children to raise by herself. She sold the store’s contents and moved in with her parents, John and Kate Gavin, at 112 Elgin St.

At 14, Patrick Kerwin quit school to help his mother financially delivering meat by horse and carriage. Patrick was soon dismissed as he would often pull over to read – back to school he went.

Upon graduation from Sarnia Collegiate (SCITS), Patrick worked with the law firm, Hanna & LeSueur, located on North Front Street, as a student-at-law until he went to law school. Graduating from Osgoode Hall in Toronto in 1911, Patrick joined Guthrie and Guthrie in Guelph, working on a myriad of cases over a 21-year period until named to the Ontario High Court of Justice.

Just three years later, Patrick was named to the Supreme Court of Canada and, in 1954; he was appointed Chief Justice of Canada. In these positions, he knew Governors-General, met royalty, Winston Churchill, and an assortment of other notables. He died at his Ottawa home on Feb. 2, 1963, the only Chief Justice to die in office.

During his time as a lawyer, provincial Justice, Supreme Court Justice and Chief Justice, he left his mark on the fabric of Canadian society through cases dealing with personal freedoms, civil liberties and constitutional matters that affect our lives to this day.


Stephen McKenna is an Ottawa-based author and musician completing a biography on Patrick Kerwin, called “Grace and Wisdom”



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