“I came to UBC from the University of Auckland in 1968. This was a period when law faculties in North America were expanding dramatically,” Peter Burns recalls. Burns was one of six young academics hired by UBC Law in that year along with Peter Barton, Barry Slutsky, Chris Carr, Richard Fields and Jerome Atrens. When he arrived, the faculty “was quite small and everybody knew everybody - it was a very tight group.”
He “never intended to go to Canada,” but a colleague of his, Andy Thompson told him, “Canada is where the action is.” The hiring process in the late 60s was far less formal than today. Thompson dispatched letters on Burns’ behalf and Burns received two offers, one from the University of Saskatchewan and another from UBC. Burns looked at the mean annual temperatures of Saskatoon and Vancouver and it was an easy decision for him to go to UBC.
Burns recalls that “1968 was the high-water mark of student radicalism.” Students occupied the faculty club, brought their dogs to class and generally “attack[ed] the institution”. He recalls two students in particular at the heart of the student movement - Carey Linde and Mike Harcourt. Though there were contentions between the radicals and the conservatives, Burns notes that the atmosphere at the law school was very congenial.
Burns served as the Dean of UBC Law from 1982 to 1991, a role which he says involved being “a representative of the faculty to both the University and the Bar.” At the time “the reputation of the law school was absolutely critical,” in particular as the Attorney General was then musing the closure of one of British Columbia’s law schools.
According to Burns, the role of Dean has changed over the years. Now, Burns says, “the Dean has a much larger fundraising role,” whereas most of the decisions are left to faculty committees. As Dean, Burns was assisted by three Associates: Jim MacIntyre, Joost Blom and Liz Edinger.
Burns relates an interesting and little known tidbit about British Columbia in the early 1980s. When he became Dean, he says, there were three “power figures” in the province: Gordon Shrum, Klein, and Nathan Nemetz, the Chief Justice of British Columbia.
In 1993, Burns was appointed Chair of the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform, and remains in this post today.