Colleagues of the late Yukon Supreme Court Justice Leigh Gower celebrate his life and career at a special sitting of the Yukon Supreme Court in Whitehorse on Jan. 9. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Friends, colleagues remember late Yukon Supreme Court Justice Leigh Gower at special sitting

Gower, who was appointed to the Yukon Supreme Court in 2003, died in October. He was 62.

He was a longtime criminal lawyer and respected judge, well-known for writing lengthy, meticulous decisions, an unwavering poker-face, his passion for ensuring everyone had access to justice and for running a tight courtroom.

But Yukon Supreme Court Justice Leigh Gower was much more than that — he was also a family man, someone with an excellent sense of colour coordination and fashion, a love for outdoor activities and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

Both Gower’s public and personal sides were celebrated and mourned the afternoon of Jan. 9 during a special sitting of the Yukon Supreme Court in Whitehorse held in his memory.

The sitting judge passed away suddenly in an Edmonton hospital in October following complications from a stroke. He was 62.

Dozens of Yukon legal professionals attended the special sitting, filling the gallery of the largest courtroom in the Whitehorse courthouse, where the event was taking place, and overflowing into a second courtroom where a live stream was set up.

Eleven members of Gower’s family and close friends were also present. They were seated in the jury box in the main courtroom and included his wife, Barbara, daughter, Gwendolen, and relatives who had travelled from as far as South Africa, the UK, Australia and Ontario for the sitting.

Barbara was the only member of the family to speak, offering a glimpse into her late husband’s life before he stepped into law: Gower was born in Durban, South Africa, to “bohemian artists” but emigrated to Alberta as a child, where he was raised by his grandparents and developed a love for outdoor activities in the mountains.

Gower obtained a bachelor of science with a minor in fine arts from the University of Alberta before studying law at the University of Saskatchewan, where he graduated in 1984.

As he finished up his education, Barbara told the court, Gower knew he did not want to practice law in a big southern city; he ended up taking a job with a firm in Yellowknife, where he fell in love with criminal defence work and the North.

Speeches from fellow judges and lawyers took up the rest of the nearly hour-and-a-half-long event, with speakers including Yukon Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Veale, Yukon Territorial Court Chief Judge Peter Chisholm, Yukon Speaker and longtime member of the Yukon bar Nils Clarke and deputy justice minister John Phelps, who spoke on behalf of himself and justice minister Tracy-Anne McPhee.

In his speech, Clarke recalled that he, Gower, and several other young lawyers moved up to the Yukon around the same time in the early ‘90s, seeking adventure and a jump-start to their careers.

Knowledgeable, thorough and efficient with his files, Gower also loved theatre, entertaining and dancing, Clarke said, and was renowned for doing the “Gower shuffle,” which Clarke described as “probably a hybrid between Mick Jagger channeling some early blues influences with a modestly-talented limbo aficionado.”

Clarke said that he and McPhee learned of Gower’s death 15 minutes before they were to return to the floor of legislature from a break; they “had a good cry” before returning to the House.

“Leigh left us too soon, and we are still processing and mourning his loss,” Clarke said, adding that he leaves behind a “substantial legacy.”

Closing up the sitting, Veale told the court that Gower had the distinction of having worked in all three of Canada’s territories and, over his 15 years as a judge, produced 452 written decisions, at least one of which was held up by the Supreme Court of Canada and others which continue to be cited as case law today.

Gower was always the first to the office, usually there by 7 a.m., and almost always wearing excellent dress shoes, Veale continued; he also had an excellent sense of colour coordination, designing a fireweed-purple sash trimmed with gold for Yukon Supreme Court judges to wear, and could be relied upon to give a straightforward answer on whether one’s tie worked with the rest of an outfit.

And while Gower was a “stickler for courtroom decorum,” there’s an exception to every rule, Veale said, adding, “Leigh, this is for you.”

A few moments later, the opening notes of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” sounded through the courtroom speakers to much applause from the gallery.

The judges stood and made their exit as Gower’s family danced and clapped along to the music in the jury box.

Canadian Bar Association Yukon to create award in late Supreme Court judge’s honour

Association’s (CBA) Yukon branch will be establishing an award in honour of late Yukon Supreme Court judge Leigh Gower.

Rick Buchan, speaking on behalf of CBA Yukon and Yukon Law Society, made the announcement during a special sitting of the Yukon Supreme Court, held in Gower’s memory, in a Whitehorse courtroom Jan. 9.

Gower passed away suddenly in October following complications from a stroke. He was 62.

Before being appointed to the Yukon Supreme Court in 2003, Gower had been a longtime criminal defence lawyer and had practiced law across the North.

The Justice Leigh Gower Award will be presented to a resident Yukon lawyer based on criteria that will be established following consultation with Gower’s family, Buchan said, which are “intended to reflect values (and) community contributions consistent with those that Leigh upheld during his lifetime.”

The news, which came at the tail end of a longer memorial speech Buchan delivered during the ceremony, drew gasps, tears and nods from some of Gower’s family members, 11 of whom were sitting in the courtroom’s jury box for the ceremony.

“While the decision has not yet been finalized, the award is expected to be represented in the form of a piece of artwork that will bear the names of the successive recipients and will be displayed in an appropriate location,” Buchan explained.

Anyone interested in contributing funds for the purchase of the artwork is asked to contact the Yukon branch of the CBA.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

This story has been updated to clarify that Nils Clarke continues to be a member of the Law Society of Yukon.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon RCMP are making an appeal for information in the case of Mary Ann Ollie, who was murdered in Ross River last year and whose case remains unsolved. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce executive director Susan Guatto and program manager Andrei Samson outside the chamber office in downtown Whitehorse Feb. 23. (Stephanie Waddell, Yukon News)
When business models shift

Whitehorse chamber offers digital marketing workshop

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The aesthetics and economics of highway strips

One of the many cultural experiences you enjoy while driving from Whitehorse… Continue reading

Submitted
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone.
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone. (Submitted)
Yukon kids express gratitude for nature, pets and friends in art campaign

More than 50 children submitted artwork featuring things they are grateful for

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read