The Magistrates Dinner – 40 years celebrating BC history

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For the last forty years, a select group of judges and magistrates has met for dinner each year "to honour those who have served the citizens of Vancouver as magistrates and judges in the criminal courts". The tradition was begun in 1979 by Judge Wallace Craig (retired), who had a high regard for the magistrates and judges who preceded him.

The Court itself did not have a long history at that point - the first Provincial Court Act was passed in 1969. But magistrates had been dealing with civil small claims and criminal misdemeanours on Canada’s west coast for 126 years before the Court was established in its present form in 1975. Often without legal training, many were both colourful characters and good horsemen, since they travelled the province on horseback to perform their duties well into the 20th century.

Eventually lawyers were appointed as magistrates in larger urban areas, and by 1960 legally trained District Magistrates were conducting preliminary hearings and indictable trials in more remote areas. The territories they were responsible for were often huge. For example, the Honourable Kenneth Arkell, a retired BC Supreme Court justice, began his judicial career as a District Magistrate responsible for the area from Mackenzie to the Yukon and from Alberta to the Alaska Panhandle. Perhaps his football career playing for the Ottawa Rough Riders and BC Lions of the CFL helped prepare Justice Arkell for the rigours of life as a magistrate.

It was to honour this tradition and the larger-than-life characters who had presided in Vancouver criminal court, that the first Magistrates Dinner, a black tie affair, was held on February 22, 1980. It was clearly a success, because the dinner became an annual event. The fortieth consecutive Magistrates Dinner was held on May 10, 2019.

At the outset, attendance was limited to retired magistrates and to judges who had sat in the Vancouver criminal court at 222 Main Street for at least three months. As time went on, the "rules" were relaxed and invitations were left to the discretion of the organizer. Judge Craig organized the event for several years, and he was followed in succession by Judges Brian Bastin, Herbert Weitzel, and for the last 12 years, Gregory Rideout.

Judge Weitzel (retired) recalls that Judge Gordon Johnson was always the first person to send in a cheque for the dinner. “When Gordie stopped driving as he got older his daughter Melanie asked if she could drive him and come to the dinner with him. At first I was reluctant to include her, but I finally agreed. About ten years later she and I got married, so that was one of my better decisions!”

He also recalled that former magistrate Bernard Isman always attended. “In his retirement Bernie had become a member of a swing orchestra that played at nursing homes in the lower mainland. Several times his band was playing in Abbotsford or Chilliwack on the day of the dinner and Bernie would leave the concert early, take the bus to downtown Vancouver in his tuxedo and then a taxi to the dinner.”

Different judges have chaired the dinner over the years. The Honourable Thomas Dohm, then a BC Supreme Court justice and the senior member attending, chaired the first eight dinners. He was succeeded by Judge Lawrence Eckhardt, and then by others including Judges Jack McGivern, Kerry Smith, Ross Collver, Conni Bagnall, Herbert Weitzel and Gregory Rideout.

Beginning in 1989, a guest speaker was invited to each dinner. The first speaker, Jack Webster, set a high standard with his inimitable combination of information and entertainment, delivered with a Scottish accent. But others, including Chief Justice Alan McEachern, Justices Josiah Wood, John Hall, Selwyn Romilly, Wally Oppal and George Murray, and senior lawyers Marvin Storrow Q.C., Dudley Edwards Q.C., Robert Kennedy Q.C. and Harry Rankin Q.C., all met that standard.

On occasion, a speaker came from the ranks of judges attending, including Justices William Selbie, Patricia Proudfoot, Ross Collver and Jane Godfrey – all of whom had sat at the Main St. courthouse as Provincial Court judges.

In his book, George Garrett: Intrepid Reporter, long-time CKNW investigative reporter George Garrett recalled speaking at the Magistrate’s Dinner in 2000. During his remarks he apologised to one judge about a news report that included very critical comments of the judge. The apology was well-received – both Mr. Garrett and the judges attending knew the judge in question was battling a fatal illness, and everyone was touched by the reporter’s gracious act.

After 40 consecutive years, the future of the Magistrates Dinner appears uncertain.
Judge Rideout commented, “The Magistrates Dinner is largely about history, and interestingly, the dinner has created a history of its own. Alas, we have run out of magistrates to celebrate. In addition, the Court’s Vancouver Region has expanded to include Richmond, Robson Square, 222 Main Street, North Vancouver, Sechelt and Pemberton. The traditions of the origins of the Magistrates' Dinner became less relevant with this expanded jurisdiction.

That said, I was honoured to both organize and chair the dinner for the last 12 years. If there is significant interest in its continuation, together with a person or persons willing to help with the organization, there is no reason why the dinner cannot continue, perhaps with some adjustments.”

See Magistrate-judge, the story of the Provincial Court of British Columbia, by Alfred Watts, QC and History for more on the history of BC’s magistrates and the Provincial Court.