“Did I suffer from all these things that women say they suffer from in a group of men? No. I gave as good as I got. I made it very clear that I wasn’t going to make the coffee and I wasn’t going to clean up their cups. I sometimes listen to some of these things that people complain about and frankly, I just roll my eyes.”
First woman on the bench in BC’s Provincial Court, 1971. First woman in the County Court of Vancouver, 1974. First woman in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, 1977. A Judge on the Court of Appeal for British Columbia and Yukon Territory, 1989. Patricia Proudfoot has earned the right to an eye-roll. “Being alone [on the bench] was … interesting,” she muses. She was the lone woman on the County Court for seven years, which according to Proudfoot set up two competing voices in her head. The first said “You’re not doing a good job, so they’re not appointing any more women.” The second said, “You must be awfully damn good!” The first was louder, but the second kept her going until 1981, when finally Beverley McLachlin, now Chief Justice of Canada, was appointed.
From her childhood on a Saskatchewan farm to high school in Rutland, BC, through the Great Depression and the second World War, Proudfoot was unwavering in her desire to become a lawyer: “I can’t remember ever wanting anything else.” She left her family in the Interior to attend UBC in 1946, arriving to find the campus bursting at its seams with returning soldiers. “For the facilities we had,” Proudfoot recalls, “we had an incredible population.” Residences were full, and many families around the city turned spare rooms into room and board. Proudfoot lived with the same family throughout her university career, working three jobs to put herself through school. Her Saturday shift selling shoes for the Hudson Bay Company earned her $4.40–55 cents an hour.
Despite her singular focus, Proudfoot says there was one thing she was afraid might stop her from going into law: that she wasn’t smart enough. Laughing now, she tells of a group of her fellow judges who swear they’d never have gotten into law school if they’d
had to write the LSAT. But after completing her B.A. in History and Psychology, Proudfoot did in fact go straight into law. She attended classes in army huts; the Faculty didn’t have its own building until 1951. “Boy, it was cold,” she laughs in recollection. “They were not comfortable at all, I can tell you.”
Ambiance notwithstanding, she enjoyed law school, and made friends she’s still in touch with now. “We’d go down to the courthouse if there was a good trial going on,” recalls Proudfoot. “Angelo Branca, Tom Hurley, Hugh McGivern … it was a pleasure to watch those guys in the courtroom.” Proudfoot remembers the few women lawyers who were active in the Vancouver courts in the 1950s—maybe 25 or 30—and names Ann Sutherland, Elspeth Monroe, Mary Southin, Winnifred Langfield, Enid Ross, Jean Russell and Edith Patterson. Angelo Branca’s daughter was her good friend and fellow student; they were two of the six women in their class. It was not a woman, though, but Branca himself who became Proudfoot’s mentor when she was first appointed to the bench.
During her years on campus, Proudfoot eschewed politics—“I never got involved, which was very good for me when I got appointed to the bench. I had absolutely no political affiliation”—and gravitated toward people. Her career, which spanned a very full 50 years, included appointments as Commissioner for the Royal Commission on the Incarceration of Female Offenders and as member of the Committee on Sexual Offenses Against Children and Youth, and service on the advisory committee on Family and Youth for the Vancouver Foundation. For 12 years, Proudfoot has served as an honourary director of Big Sisters of British Columbia—Lower Mainland, and still sits on the advisory committee for the Franciscan Sisters of Atonement on Cordova Street, who feed 500-900 of Vancouver’s hungry every day.
Retired now, Proudfoot says, “I did not practice law with timesheets. I could not handle the pressure of billing god-knows-how-many hours. I could not send some of the bills that some of these lawyers have to send out. I haven’t even renewed my license, so nobody can ask me for legal advice.” She laughs. “I enjoyed my clients. I had two generations, with the third generation sitting on the floor in my office. People don’t do that now … I guess they can’t. Nobody could pay me enough money to go back to law practice.”
No going back, but no regrets, either. “I have nothing but good memories,” she says. “I’m very proud to say that I’m a UBC graduate. There wasn’t a prouder moment in my life than when they gave me my honourary [doctorate].” Casting her mind back to the young men and women with whom she shared her time in UBC Law, she says, “We all did what we wanted to do.”
Written by Diane Haynes and originally published in the UBC Law Alumni Magazine, Fall 2005.