Mitch Taylor is a family man. His son Patrick is studying sciences at UBC and his daughter Samantha is a member of Canada’s Equestrian Team and a 2008 Olympic hopeful. His wife Nora, Senior Investment Executive with Scotia McLeod, comes up twice in conversation; they have been married for 31 years. So when Taylor says he “kind of fell into law,” it sounds less like an accident than like falling in love: a wholehearted, lifelong commitment to the work he was meant for.
Taylor is Senior General Counsel, Aboriginal Law, in the BC Regional Office of the Department of Justice, where he has worked since his articles in 1980-81. He has received Deputy Minister awards of excellence for his work on Indian Residential Schools and Aboriginal law litigation and resolution. Among his professional affiliations is membership with the Supreme Court of Canada Advocacy Institute, and he is involved in Continuing Legal Education as an author, presenter, mentor and lifelong learner. Somehow, he still finds time for gardening and landscaping, interests that predate his work in the law.
Taylor earned his first degree in urban geography and worked as a Planning Officer for the City of Vancouver for three years before applying to graduate school in urban planning and law. He was accepted to both. He decided, “‘I’m gonna try out law!’ And one thing led to another. I think it was really just the intrigue of … seeing what it was like.”
Despite a first year he calls “a trial to everyone,” Taylor credits then-Dean Lysyk and Professor Bertie McClean with making the potentially dry subjects of constitutional law and trusts interesting to him. He mentions the camaraderie of those years more than once and, with a planner’s insight, notes the role the building’s common area played in nurturing that.
When it came time to article, Taylor applied to several firms before responding to an ad for the Department of Justice. “I thought, ‘Makes sense—the Federal Government’s going to need lawyers,’” he says. He was interviewed by Bill Hobson, who had just led the incorporation of VIA Rail and regaled the young Taylor with fascinating details of the litigation involved. Taylor says, “There … aren’t very many places where you can get the breadth and challenge and interest that you can get with the Federal Government because of the great variety and complexity and problems that [it] gets involved in.” He accepted their offer, and has stayed.
In 1984, Ian Binnie (now a Justice with the Supreme Court of Canada) brought Taylor in to junior on the Guerin case, and Taylor got his first introduction to Aboriginal law. Later, Taylor juniored on the Blueberry River Indian Band case. Always attracted to cases that dealt with the interests and needs of everyday people, Taylor “got deeper and deeper into Aboriginal law.” For the last decade, it has comprised the whole of his practice.
“I view it as truly important work,” Taylor says. “While people will often disagree with our position … it makes a real difference, and benefits Aboriginal people and [all] Canadians to have the work done on these cases.”
Taylor has argued for the Federal Government in the Supreme Court of Canada on Guerin, Apsassin, Haida/Taku, Bernard/ Marshall, Sappier/Gray and Blackwater, to name just a few, and is currently lead counsel on several Aboriginal rights and title cases. But what stands out in his mind is the Indian Residential
School file, and specifically Blackwater.
Blackwater “came out of the … sexual abuse that had been suffered by many individuals … at the Alberni Residential School in Port Alberni, mainly in the 1960s,” says Taylor. “That [case, which involved 30 plaintiffs] was a very profound and challenging experience, both as to the stories that were told and the tragedies both of the abuse and the aftermath, the impacts it has on people. Very challenging legal issue, too, with respect to the liability of the [United] Church and the government.” As Taylor puts it, “There were legal issues between the Church and government as to who was on for what, which won’t surprise you, I expect.” Taylor played an instrumental role in what are known as the Church Negotiations.
The Blackwater trial spanned two and a half years, and ended with the Supreme Court of Canada upholding the trial judge’s 75/25 split in liability between the government and the Church, and an award of significant financial compensation. That decision helped spark negotiations in the class action approach to resolving
Indian Residential School claims.
This September 19th began the implementation of a $1.9 billion class action settlement for some 15,000 claimants. Compensation “was addressed as our system of law provides,” says Taylor, “through money. But at the same time, there are non-money items to do with apologies, to do with healing initiatives.” Implementation will take several years; the healing, several more.
Taylor notes the unique considerations involved in acting for the Crown. “Whereas a First Nations claimant, like any other individual litigant, has as his or her prime objective to win their case,” says Taylor, “with the Federal Government … you don’t just look at what’s best to do in this one case. You have to think beyond [it] to the consequences for other cases and other parts of the government. While in some ways a win is good, that’s not the sole objective.”
He adds, “As well as looking at the law, you have to look at what’s right.” Referring again to Blackwater, he notes that “in the Indian Residential School cases, the government and church [did] not rely on limitation periods for sexual assault [or] for a number of physical assaults as well. We decide[d] that what [was] right in these cases was to deal with [them] on their merits: was the person sexually assaulted, what’s the proper compensation, and who’s responsible.”
“I hope,” he says, “that the implementation will go smoothly, that the compensation flows and the people benefit from the compensation. There are some risks there, because the hucksters come around when people get money, and sometimes prevail on them to spend [it] on useless things.”
The accidental lawyer carries his work with him long after the echo of final arguments fades, but he wouldn’t have it any other way: “The work that I’ve done, the career that I’m having with the Department of Justice—marvelous work. A wonderful way to spend one’s day working and earning a living.”
Written by Diane Haynes and originally published in the UBC Law Alumni Magazine, Winter 2008.