Yukon Supreme Court Justice Leigh Gower has died. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)

UPDATED: Yukon Supreme Court Justice Leigh Gower dies unexpectedly

Judge remembered for his balance and diligence, as well as his love for theatre and motorcycles

It was tough to beat Justice Leigh Gower into the office. He regularly showed up at 7 a.m. to prepare for his days on the bench of the Yukon Supreme Court.

“I think everyone will say this, but he was a diligent worker,” Chief Justice Ron Veale told the News on Oct. 30, the day after Gower died following a weekend hospitalization. He was in his early 60s. “I rarely ever beat him into the office”

Veale said that’s how Gower arrived at his long, thoughtful, well-balanced decisions. Veale said those decisions will be one of many things Yukoners remember about the judge, who moved to the Yukon in the early ‘90s. Veale said he developed a preference for criminal law, which meant he oversaw most of the murder trials in the Yukon in the last 10 years.

Gower was born in South Africa and raised in Innisfil, Alta. He attended law school at the University of Saskatchewan, after which he worked as an articling student at Richard, Vertes, Peterson & Schuler in the Northwest Territories, and then as Legal Aid defence, working the territorial court circuits through the NWT.

“He quickly developed a love for the North and I think he also quickly developed a desire to help serve the people of the North,” said John Vertes, a now-retired Supreme Court Justice.

Vertes told the News that Gower showed a real desire to learn as much about the North as possible. He brought that desire with him when he moved to Whitehorse in 1991 to work for Preston, Willis, Leitch & Lackowicz.

Over the years Gower worked as an independent lawyer and was a partner with Miller Thomson LLP. He also served as a member of the judicial council for the territorial court of Yukon, and the director for the three northern territories for the Canadian Superior Court Judges Association.

He was appointed a justice of the Yukon Supreme Court in 2003.

MP Larry Bagnell released a statement calling Gower’s death a shock, describing him as having a sharp legal mind and one that will be missed by the legal community.

Liberal MLA and Minister of Justice Tracy Anne McPhee worked with Gower during her time as president of the Yukon Law Society.

McPhee also released a statement, calling Gower “a dedicated and thoughtful judge who serves the role with integrity.”

“Leigh Gower was the measure of what we in the justice system look to in our judiciary; intelligent, thoughtful, open-minded and yet respectful of precedent. Beyond being a respected lawyer, jurist, actor and family man, he was above all a kind and decent human being and his absence leaves a profound void in both our legal system and in our hearts,” reads the statement.

Veale said one of many things he learned from Gower was the importance of diligence. He said Gower was fearless, and didn’t shy away from difficult decisions, including a ruling that is currently under appeal where the decision sided with the federal government in a case regarding the land claims of the Ross River Dena Council.

It’s a quality Veale said was evident in the way he worked and in the work itself, and that he thinks Gower’s writing will be his legacy in the territory.

“Normally when you leave the position (as a judge), that’s the last time you’ll hear of the judgments. Not in his case,” Veale said.

Veale added that Gower was also a fascinating man outside of the courthouse.

In the ‘90s, Gower performed in numerous plays at the Guild Hall.

“He was very much larger than life,” said Veale, who attended a number of the performances. “Very accomplished … one of the differences when you become a judge, your life kind of narrows a little bit. You’re sitting up in that office and you don’t have the same opportunities you did before you had the job.”

Something he did still have time for was riding his motorcycle — something he occasionally did with former Whitehorse resident John Kennedy.

Kennedy, who now lives in Mexico, said the two met when Gower was a lawyer in Yellowknife, and represented Kennedy when Kennedy was charged with possession in the late ‘80s.

Afterwards, Kennedy moved to Whitehorse in 1990, around the same time Gower did.

Kennedy said the two didn’t realize they were in the same city again until they ran into each other one day on Main Street. It would be the first of many run-ins, Kennedy said, and led to motorcycle rides together, sometimes as part of the Ride for Dad fundraiser, and sometimes as part of a small group doing a loop through Carcross and Tagish.

“He was a really nice guy. He had a busy life but he always made time to talk,” said Kennedy, noting that Gower always took a few minutes to catch up with him. “He was always willing to help a person out, no matter what side of the law you were on … He was an upstanding, outstanding person.”

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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