By Brian Dunn

In 1823, 44 years before Confederation, a young lawyer named William Badgley opened a practice in the house of his mentor and teacher Benjamin Beaubien, a well-known Montreal attorney. At the time, the city’s economy was dominated by the fur trade, shipping and banking, the latter two sectors providing Mr. Badgley a fair amount of business. Today, Mr. Badgley’s firm is known as Borden Ladner Gervais LLP (BLG) which is celebrating its 190th Anniversary this year. Before it became BLG in 2000 through the merger of law firms Howard Mackie of Calgary, McMaster Gervais of Montreal, Scott & Aylen of Ottawa, Borden & Elliot of Toronto and Ladner Downs of Vancouver, the law firm went through several name changes, the most recent being McMaster Gervais in 1998, and before that McMaster Meighen in 1979, although the name McMaster Meighen first appeared in 1951 as Heward, Holden, Hutchison, Cliff, McMaster, Meighen & Hebert.

Over the years, the firm has produced a Prime Minister, an ambassador to the United States, law school deans, Appeal Court justices and Directors of national corporations. It has also represented the crème de la crème of Canada’s current and former blue chip companies including Hudson’s Bay Co., Canadian Pacific Railway, Bank of Montreal, Prudential Life, Molson’s Bank (until 1925 when it was merged with Bank of Montreal), Alcan, Royal Trust, Bell Canada, General Electric, DuPont and Dominion Textiles, to name a few. The firm’s most famous client was the Prince of Wales, who owned property in Alberta where the firm acted on his behalf. It also represented a Russian diver who briefly defected after the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

As shipping played an increasingly important role in the economic growth of Canada, the firm developed an expertise in maritime law and represented a number of the large international shipowners and insurance firms that do business in Canada. BLG and its predecessors have represented past and present shipping companies, notably Canada Steamship Lines, Sydney Cape Breton & Montreal Steamship Co., Union Steamship Co., Steamer Colin W. Ltd. & St. Lawrence Tankers Ltd., Lunham Moore Shipping Ltd. and the Harbour Commissioners of Montreal, renamed The Old Port of Montreal Corporation in 1981.

Montreal’s shipping industry has faced a number of challenges even during the early days of Mr. Badgley’s career when English merchants were pitted against the provincial government of Louis Joseph Papineau who refused to finance improvements to the St. Lawrence transportation system, as demanded by the merchants. In 1838, Mr. Badgley was dispatched to London as spokesman for the newly-formed Constitutional Association to represent the interests of the merchants. The result was the passing of the Act of Union in 1840, uniting Upper and Lower Canada with full responsible government, after which the British government guaranteed loans for the canalization of the St. Lawrence River which was completed in 1848.

Mr. Badgley’s law practice was growing at such a good clip that he took on his first partner in 1849, John Abbott. Two years later, Mr. Badgley became the first professor of Law at McGill University and then the first dean of the Law Faculty in 1853. One of Mr. Badgley’s clients, Hugh Allan, built a shipping empire known as the Allan Line, was part of a syndicate that established the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company in 1854. The company secured the rights to offer a weekly passenger service between Montreal and Liverpool.

Mr. Badgley left private practice in 1855 when he was appointed a judge of the Superior Court, and then moved to the Court of Queen’s Bench in 1863. He retired in 1874, but continued to practice law until his death in 1888 at the age of 87.

Like his partner before him, John Abbott sat on the Parliamentary Committee on Railways, Canals and Telegraph Lines and many of his clients were involved in railways and he was appointed President of Canada Central Railway in 1862. By the time of Confederation on July 1, 1867, which united New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario, Mr. Abbott had become the most sought-after corporate lawyer in Montreal. And for the 20 years following Confederation, the firm’s business was dominated by the construction of CPR’s trans-Canada railway. As luck would have it, the major underwriting of the construction was handled by Bank of Montreal, another of Mr. Abbott’s major clients. When he retired in 1887 at the age of 65, he was immediately appointed to the Board of Directors of CPR, leaving the law firm in the hands of his two sons. He was also elected Mayor of Montreal for two terms. In 1891, when Sir John A. Macdonald died, Mr. Abbott replaced him as Prime Minister at the age of 70, but he retired the following year due to ill health and died in 1893.

Of Mr. Abbott’s two sons, Henry, the youngest, was the more distinguished lawyer and wrote a definitive “Treatise on the Railway Law of Canada.” His brother John (J.B.) Abbott played a lesser role in the firm, dedicating most of his time to his artistic interest as a painter of water-colours. Henry Abbott was the senior litigator of the firm, but he unexpectedly died in 1898 at the age of 41, ending a career that might have been as distinguished as his father’s, who has a CEGEP (junior college) named after him in Ste. Anne de Bellevue on the West Island of Montreal – John Abbott College. In the same year Henry died, his brother decided to retire from the firm to dedicate his time to painting. James Bryce Allan, the nephew of Sir Hugh Allan of the Allan shipping company, soon joined the firm as one of two partners to replace the Abbott brothers.

With the law practice firmly connected to Canadian Pacific, it could not help but benefit from the growth of Canadian Pacific which after the completion of the trans-Canada railway began to expand its interests into natural resource development and passenger ships. In 1891, it introduced the famous “Empress” class of ships, offering a world cruise for $600 (the equivalent to $15,000 today). The company had even bigger ambitions, deciding it must have an Atlantic service. Negotiations began in 1909 for the purchase of the Allan Line and its agencies for $8.5 million, but the deal wasn’t completed until 1917.

The three decades between 1880-1914 were considered the Golden Age of Montreal’s influence on the Canadian economy. It has been estimated that 70 per cent of Canada’s wealth in 1900 was controlled by a small group of about 50 men who lived in the famous “Square Mile” of Montreal at the foot of Mont Royal. A rapidly growing economy spelled good times for corporate lawyers.

By now, the firm had four partners, considered large at the time. In 1901, it added a fifth partner, Arthur Holden, who specialized in maritime law. His addition boosted the firm’s reputation in this field which it retains to this day.

Mr. Holden played a role during the inquiry that followed the collision of the CPR’s Empress of Ireland with the Norwegian collier SS Storstad near Rimouski on May 29, 1914, resulting in the loss of 1,014 passengers on the Empress, the largest single maritime disaster in Canadian history. Thanks to his meticulous work, the final report exonerated the Empress and its owner, Canadian Pacific, allowing Mr. Holden to put in a claim for damages, which resulted in the sale of SS Storstad for the sum of $175,000. The victory further enhanced the firm’s reputation as a maritime law specialist which attracted new clients.

One intriguing case involved a shipment of liquor during prohibition in 1927. All firms exporting liquor from Canada were required to sign a bond stating the destination of the shipment, and Consolidated Distilleries signed a bond for a shipment destined for San Salvador. But once the ship left Vancouver, it headed for the California coast with the liquor to be smuggled into the U.S. Consolidated was sued for $20 million by the Canadian government for fraud. But when an appeal was taken to the Privy Council in 1933, the decision was reversed. It was ruled Consolidated had satisfied the requirements of the law and could not be expected to control the actions of the exporter.

With the outbreak of war in Europe imminent, many wealthy Europeans, including the Nestlé family of Switzerland and the Guinness family of Ireland, looked to Canada as a secure place for their assets. The firm generated a substantial amount of business looking after their interests.

When senior partner F.E. Meredith died in 1941, his funeral was one of the largest in Montreal’s history and both the legal and business communities were well represented among the pall-bearers, a testament to his influence. They included Sir Edward Beatty, President of CPR, Sir Montagu Allan, Sir Herbert Holt, arguably Canada’s richest man at the time, and Chief Justice R.A.E. Greenshields.

A year later, the firm recruited its first female junior, Constance Garner Short. She made courtroom history shortly after joining the firm as the first female lawyer to appear in the Admiralty Court and the first to appear in the Court of Appeal. It wasn’t until 1985 that the firm welcomed its first female partner, Elizabeth Mitchell.

Throughout the 1950s, the firm handled the business of some of Canada’s largest companies, including Bank of Montreal, Royal Trust, Canadian Pacific and Stelco.

One of the biggest projects the firm was involved in was the massive Wabush Lake iron ore mining project undertaken by Wabush Mines Limited in Labrador. This development required capital of $300 million to develop the mine and the town site which at the time, was among the largest corporate financing in Canadian history, with Canadian, European and American steel companies participating in the financing. The closing of the agreement finally took place in 1962 and involved 18 lawyers and a New York law firm to seal the deal after five days of negotiations.

The firm was even involved indirectly with the new communist regime in Cuba after Fidel Castro seized power in January, 1959. One of the government’s first acts was to nationalize the Cuban operations of the Hershey Sugar Company. When the ship Bahia de Santiago de Cuba arrived in Montreal in June, 1961 with $200,000 worth of sugar onboard, Hershey instructed the firm to register a claim of ownership on the vessel and its cargo. The Cuban government retaliated, claiming sovereign immunity and demanded the case be tried in Cuba instead of Canada. The dispute ended when the court ruled in favour of the Cuban government on the grounds the Canadian government had given recognition to the Castro government.

The firm’s international work grew steadily, not only in finance, but also in maritime law, a department that always had clients globally. By the 1980s, McMaster Meighen, as the firm was then called, was representing shipping companies in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Poland and Cuba, in addition to Western European countries. Some partners were also active on the Comité Maritime Internationale, a body set up with the mandate of unifying national maritime laws.

With the loss of several important clients who moved their head offices to Toronto following the election of the first Parti Québécois government in 1976, McMaster Meighen opened an office in Toronto shortly thereafter and a third office in Ottawa in 1985, the same year it launched its first in-house publication Nouvellae. A year earlier, it had opened its first European office in London to represent its growing list of European clients, but has closed it since due to high cost of doing business in that city.

Today, BLG has over 750 lawyers, intellectual property agents and other legal professionals in six offices – Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Waterloo, Calgary and Vancouver. Banking and shipping remain an important part of the firm’s business. In addition to maritime law, the firm serves clients in over 20 areas, including banking and financial services, commercial real estate, construction and engineering, insurance, litigation and arbitration and wealth management. It is active in several industries, notably automotive, aviation, education, healthcare, information technology, land transportation and mining. It also continues to represent some of Canada’s largest corporations, for example, representing Loblaw in its $12.4 billion acquisition of Shoppers Drug Mart.

And the firm that dates back 190 years continues to perform at the top of its game. More of its lawyers have been recognized in the 2014 edition of The Best Lawyers in Canada® than any other law firm in Canada, an honour the firm has held for six consecutive years. In total, 213 BLG lawyers are recognized in the guide, up from 203 in 2013. In addition, The Best Lawyers in Canada® recognized 13 BLG lawyers as a “Lawyer of the Year,” an honour presented to a single outstanding lawyer in each practice area and jurisdiction.

The writer acknowledges the kind collaboration of the copyright owners of the book “The History of McMaster Meighen” written by Doug Mitchell and Judy Slinn, in providing permission to reproduce parts of the book for this article.