Professor Robin Elliot, Q.C., joined the Allard School of Law in 1976 as Assistant Professor, after he was called to the Bar of B.C. in 1975. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1983 and to Professor in 1991. He has written extensively in the area of Constitutional Law, including works on both the Charter and Canadian federalism, and adjudicated cases under provincial and federal human rights legislation. During his fruitful career, he has been involved in the litigation of several important Charter and other constitutional cases. Professor Elliot reflects on his life, education and almost four decades of work experience at UBC’s Law School in an interview with the Allard School of Law History Project conducted in February 2015.
On the eve of his last year at the law school, Professor Elliot – beloved by many, many students, alumni, professors and staff along with many members of the provincial and federal legal communities – spoke with Allard School of Law Alumni Relations about how he found his passion for constitutional law, his decades-long teaching career and the day he suffered a heart attack in the middle of a classroom seminar.
How did you become interested in law, and then later, constitutional law?
I had gone into mathematics because I’d done well at school and didn’t have sort of a burning desire to take up anything else. I figured that I’d done well because I had a mind that kind of liked to break problems down into their constituent parts and work through them very systematically, and what could be better for someone like that than math?
Later, I concluded that the only difference between mathematicians and economists was that mathematicians didn’t sort of pretend that what we were studying and thinking about had immediate practical application, whereas economists did. And it just made no sense, because to me everything turned on the assumptions. If you assume X, Y and Z, well then you come up with these graphs, and this is what you end up deciding to do. I kept trying to go back to the assumptions, and saying, ‘wait a minute...’
I realized that wasn’t going to work, and I was at a bit of a loss. Then I thought what the heck, I’ll apply to law school and see if that was any better. It was interesting because it didn’t take me long to realize that actually this had been the world I was really looking for when I finished math.
It was a world in which the same types of skills were used. I had thought, ‘yeah, ok, I’m pretty good at this,’ of seeing a problem, identifying the issues, organizing them systematically, working through them and so on. So those skills could be used, and to practical end! People were actually solving real-world problems by going through this process. Anyway so within two weeks, I thought, ‘oh god, this is just heaven, I just love this!’
You had quite a health scare last year, in February of 2014. How did that affect you?
It was in the middle of a seminar. I came [upstairs to my office] because I really was not in great shape and then ended up deciding I’ve got to get into the hospital, but realizing I couldn’t. In ten minutes [now Associate Dean Janine Benedet] had an ambulance here, and ultimately everything was fine, and I feel fine now. But it certainly struck home in terms of how quickly it can all come to an end.
It was a bit scary because I’m not a candidate for a heart attack, so when I was asked do I have diabetes; do I smoke; I’m not overweight; do I exercise … I ticked off none of the kind of risk factors. And the medical staff with whom I dealt after the heart attack were quite mystified in terms of, why me? One went so far as to say that if I had come in the day before the heart attack for a full medical, looking at absolutely everything that could be relevant, they would have said ‘you’re in great shape, off you go.’
What will you take away from your years of teaching when you retire?
I would take a number of things away but for me the teaching has always been the best part of this job. Certainly I will take away the relationships that I’ve developed with a lot of the students that I taught. I think I’ll take away a sense of having been so incredibly fortunate to have had a career in which I was able to do so many things that I really enjoy doing with teaching definitely at the top of that list.
I know it’s trite to say that faculty members learn from their students and so on but it’s true, you know. You get good classes – these are classes in which you’ve got really engaged students who are willing to challenge you and so on, so it’s been reciprocal. There’s been learning for me as a result of the teaching that I’ve done.