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