By Brian Dunn
In his book, My Life at the Bar and Beyond, Alex Paterson mentions several committees, Boards and causes he’s been involved with while holding a full-time job as a lawyer at BLG and its predecessors, including Heward Holden, where he began his career in 1957. Given those time-consuming responsibilities, the question that begs to be asked is when did he have time for his day job?
The simple answer is that it’s all part of the corporate culture dating back to Heward Holden of giving back to the community. Mr. Paterson’s main concern when BLG was created in 2000 through a merger with four other law firms across the country was whether, with 600 lawyers, the new entity would become more concerned with the bottom line and less involved in the community. The exact opposite happened with the creation of a national Reading to Kids program involving BLG staff and lawyers to go to inner-city schools to read to children and donate books. In fact, BLG has become more involved in the community since the merger, according to Mr. Paterson. “It’s part of our lifeblood. Students who come here to work are aware of it and are encouraged to do volunteer work or pro bono work to get credit” (towards climbing the corporate ladder.)
Today, Mr. Paterson, the longest surviving lawyer at BLG with over 55 years under his belt, is Counsel in the Montreal office and a former senior partner of the firm. Along the way, the Order of Canada recipient has met some interesting people, including former Russian Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Pamela Travers, author of Mary Poppins. “Desmond Tutu had more influence on me than anyone else. I’ve never heard such a speech (when he presented him with an Honorary Degree from Bishop’s University in 1998). It was fascinating. There were 3,000 people there and you could hear a pin drop, even after an hour.”
Mr. Paterson also has been personally involved in several important events in Quebec, notably the 1976 Poirier Commission to end a school strike in the province, the 1980 Quebec Referendum and the 1990 Oka Crisis where he was the chief negotiator for the Quebec government. And he’s been a tireless champion for, and sat on the Boards of Bishop’s and McGill universities. He estimates that over the course of his extensive career, more than half his practice has related to work with hospitals, namely the Royal Victoria, Montreal General, Montreal Children’s and Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. He was also President of the MacKay Centre for handicapped children.
Mr. Paterson’s roots in Canada date back to 1759 when John, the brother of his great-great-great grandfather, arrived in Quebec with General James Wolfe’s army. And his great-great grandfather was a deputy for Mégantic during the time of Confederation. By curious coincidence, BLG is involved in a lawsuit related to the Lac Mégantic train derailment.
The majority of Mr. Paterson’s criminal cases involved prosecuting fraud and forgery cases for Bank of Montreal, and theft cases for shipping companies. His first admiralty assignment occurred while he was working at Heward Holden, one of Canada’s leading marine law firms that represented Canada Steamship Lines among other shipping companies.
One July in the early 1960’s, the CSL passenger ship Tadoussac was struck broadside by an ocean-going vessel. The young lawyer was sent to Quebec City to make sure there were no injuries and when assured by the ship’s captain there were none, drove back to Montreal the same day thinking the case was closed. A year later, Mr. Paterson was summoned to the office of senior partner Clement Holden who was also head of the admiralty department and the following exchange took place: “Paterson, I thought you reported that there were no injuries on the Tadoussac.” “Yes sir,” he replied in terror. “Well then, how do you explain that a writ against Canada Steamship Lines for US$100,000 has been taken out in Philadelphia by two passengers on the Tadoussac?” It turned out the two passengers had boarded the ship after getting married in Quebec City and had retired to their cabin to consummate their marriage when the bow of the ocean-going vessel ploughed into their cabin. Their lawyer claimed the marriage was never consummated that night or even a year later. The case was settled for $10,000.
“During my first four or five years, I spent a lot of time with Holden on admiralty cases. The interesting part of Maritime law is that you meet people from all over the world. “One of the most intriguing cases involved the Ticonica with the loss of so many Chinese crew lives. We were responsible for getting the bodies moved to Montreal for cremation because they didn’t do that in Quebec City in those days.” Like many of Mr. Paterson’s cases, there is often a story behind the story. “There was a question of jurisdiction, because the mishap occurred in County Charlevoix. Tony Price (a Quebec City lawyer) made a motion to move the case to Quebec City, arguing the tides would have swept the bodies in that direction. It was terrible that so many drowned. It wouldn’t have happened ten years later with radar. In those days, every summer there would be an average of two mishaps a month.”
One of his biggest cases involved CN Rail in 1983 that bought concrete ties from Canfarge which all broke apart. The $34 million action required outside help and Mr. Paterson was engaged. “Jacques Brien was the expert at our firm, but they wanted me, because someone at CN heard me speak at a Canadian Club luncheon (in support of the “No” side during the referendum). We spoke to experts across Canada and settled for $24 million.”
Lloyds was one of several companies considering moving its head office out of Montreal following the 1980 Referendum. But Mr. Paterson assured the company that Quebec was not going to separate, and it stayed. The only company he failed to convince was Bank of Montreal, although several other head offices left, including the well publicized departure of Sun Life. “The Montreal business community needed support and these guys were pulling out.”
Bank of Montreal was also one of six or seven clients he represented at the Supreme Court of Canada over a forged endorsement of a $75,000 cheque. While not a large amount, it set a precedent involving all government and since then, they are not immune in all cases involving claims by banks.
Apart from meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of Mr. Paterson’s most memorable moments in his very active life was a speech he gave at the Montreal Forum for Rally Canada during the Referendum. He was scheduled to go on before Jean Chrétien and was a little reluctant. Fortunately there was a bar backstage which he took advantage of to cool his nerves. “They needed an Anglophone which was me. But Chrétien’s handlers didn’t want me to go on, because they felt a lot of people would get bored and leave. But Chrétien insisted I go on, because I had been asked to speak.”
As he looks back on his extensive career, Mr. Paterson would like to be remembered for his work on bringing the McGill University Health Centre (commonly referred to as one of Montreal’s Super Hospitals) to life. The hospital is presently under construction. “Politically, the highlight was the Oka Crisis. My mandate was to re-open the Mercier bridge. The problem was to get the federal and Quebec governments on the same page.” Asked why he took on the Poirier Commission and Oka portfolio, two thankless jobs, Mr. Paterson didn’t hesitate with his answer. “You have to convince yourself that nobody else would do it and you have to take risks.”