Centennial Book: People Principles Progress

Established in 1914, the Court of Appeal of Alberta celebrated its centennial in 2014. A book commemorating this occasion was published by the Legal Archives Society of Alberta in 2014. This book was made possible through the generous support of the Government of Alberta and many hours of work by historical consultant David Mittelstadt.

With the permission of the author and the Legal Archives Society of Alberta, we are pleased to provide an electronic version of People Principles Progress: Alberta Court of Appeal’s First Century 1914-2014.

The following is an overview of the publication by Justice J. Watson:

In some less fortunate places, history is a moving target. One commentator suggested that in the former Soviet Union, it could be dangerous attempting to predict the past. There is, however, a substantial past "of record" when it comes to the people, principles and progress involved in the first century of effort by the Court of Appeal of Alberta. The difficulty with telling that story - ventured in the centennial book written about it - was in selection, not reliability.

Spread over 10 Chapters, representing 10 eras of leadership, a reader will perhaps be surprised to see the remarkable consistency of the Court in asserting and protecting what Sir William Blackstone called the "outworks" of freedom, democracy and equal justice under the rule of law. The Court attempted to erect what James Madison called the "parchment barriers" to protect those things. At the same time, the Court was a Court of the people. It dealt with property disputes, tort claims, wills and estates, land law, employment law, criminal justice, and laws of family. In retrospect, some might say that the Court did not always get the balance right.

The Court's obligation to decide extended to all law of private and public dimensions. It had a duty to make contracts, finance and property ownership durable and credible. It was required to provide realistic and predictable interpretation of the criminal law and to fit the objectives and tools of that law to an increasingly complex and yet open society. It was to ensure that all men, women and children of all circumstances and cultures were entitled to their equal share of the law's protection. So the book speaks of this also. It is for each reader to decide how well the Court did.

In all topics, the baton of "duty first" was passed from hand to hand. The early judges, and every generation that followed, stood for the opinion that an agency of the executive cannot act without legal authority, and that when it exercises that authority, it must do so reasonably. They said that where there is a legal wrong, there must be a legal remedy and that the courts must provide it. Often against the day's popular majority of thought, they held the political branches to the limits of their jurisdiction. And they knew that the Court must act openly, impartially, fearing no power, and giving every person a right of audience, a fair hearing and a secure place in the halls of justice.

The biographies of the earliest judges were quite similar. But, like Alberta itself, the court evolved. The biographies began to vary greatly as did the philosophies and representativeness of the judges. Yet the Court's commitment to duty endured. Indeed, the commitment expanded over time as the book shows. The Court's cognizance of interests and rights and of the heterogeneity of Alberta culture grew with the province. Indeed, the Court's sensitivity to social needs and to the perils and harms of inequality evolved, arguably ahead of wider common understanding in some respects. At the same time, the Court sought to maintain the judicial capacity to uphold the honour system of law that both validates and preserves a fundamentally just and free society.

Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, the Court was not always right. But this is a real Alberta story - a compilation of many narratives - about real people, who were imbued with and devoted to principles, and who, anonymously and unknown to most of their contemporaries and their descendants, contributed to progress in Alberta society.