OPINION: Little-known Patrick Kerwin ranks among Sarnia’s greatest

Patrick Kerwin was a Sarnia-born son of a sea captain and SCITS grad who became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Submitted Photo

Phil Egan

Most residents know Alexander Mackenzie, Canada’s second prime minister, was a son of Sarnia.

Fewer, I suspect, recognize the name of Pauline McGibbon, a city girl who became an Officer of the Order of Canada and the first female Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.

But fewer still know of Patrick Grandcourt Kerwin – and that’s a shame. The Sarnia-born Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada is a source of pride to those who know his story.

Born in Sarnia in 1889, Kerwin was the son of a Great Lakes sea captain from Ireland. His father later purchased a liquor store on Front Street, and the family lived above the shop.

Kerwin lost his father when he was eight years old. He lived with his maternal grandparents on Elgin Street, and to help support the family made meat deliveries for a butcher.

William Hanna was a senior partner in the law firm of Hanna, McCarthy and LeSueur, and later, president of Imperial Oil. He was asked by one of Kerwin’s teachers at Sarnia Collegiate to give him some part-time work. Hanna arranged for Kerwin to serve as a law clerk, his introduction to a life that would ultimately bring him fame and glory.

In 1908, a formal legal education was considered a supplement to the practical knowledge gained by working in a lawyer’s office. But Kerwin wanted both. He enrolled at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto (then a city of 300,000 people), graduated and was admitted to the bar in 1911.

His first practice was at Guthrie and Guthrie in Guelph. Three years later the firm became Guthrie, Guthrie and Kerwin, when Patrick Kerwin was just 23-years-old.

A distinguished legal career followed. Kerwin was appointed to the bench in 1932 as a judge of the High Court of Justice of Ontario. He joined the Supreme Court of Canada in 1935 and was elevated to Chief Justice in 1954.

During his time, the top court stopped governments from using the cover of law to arrest citizens critical of the state, and outlawed real estate discrimination based on race.

He also pushed for the right to a speedy trial, something later enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

When Kerwin died in 1963, Governor-General George Vanier described his service as one of “grace and wisdom,” which is the title of a new biography written by his grandson, Stephen McKenna.

If you’d like to learn more, McKenna is the guest speaker at a free public meeting of the Sarnia Historical Society, on Thursday, May 9, at 7 p.m., at the Royal Canadian Legion, 286 Front St N.