PORTRAIT OF A LEGAL HARMONIZER

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It is a beautiful language for those who would defend it
It offers treasures of infinite richness
The words we could not find to understand one another
And the strength we need to live in harmony

Yves Duteil, "La langue de chez nous"

(Reproduced with the kind authorization of "Éditions de l'Écritoire".)


Almost two weeks after my interview for a job with the Civil Code Section, I received the phone call that would change our lives, Viviane's and mine. It was from one of the lawyers in the section offering me a one-year term as counsel. I will long remember the end of that afternoon. From my window, I could see how the trees on the Plateau Mont‑Royal were losing their leaves with every gust of wind. It was the end of summer but, most of all, it was the beginning of a promising professional adventure.

In a short time, I had to move to the National Capital. I had to find an apartment fast, get settled in a new neighbourhood, in a different universe, in a foreign environment and learn how to live on my own again. Viviane and I would live two hundred kilometres apart for several weeks so that she could sell the house and find an associate to take over her dental clinic.

Looking ahead in the long term, we saw only happiness. Viviane would come join me in Ottawa, we would buy a lovely home and she could open another dental clinic. We had found our capacity to dream again, to project ourselves into the future. Once, we had had rosy visions of our future but, driven by our professional agendas, that bright prospect had somewhat dimmed.

That night, we let our eyes do the talking, and my beating heart danced like a candle flame. Our sense of complicity was as exquisite as a well-aged Château Latour.

The next day I took the 417 for the first time in my young career. Driving along that asphalt ribbon bordered with hardwoods. Discovering the glow of light spreading over the horizon in the middle of the night. And, finally, following the meandering road leading to the capital.

If there was one overwhelming frustration that I experienced in my years of private practice, it was that I never could get into the legal issues that occurred to me as I read federal statutes. Things had to be done in a hurry: the client was waiting, the other side, too, the meter was ticking and the cell phone ringing, the pleadings had to be filed fast, the injunction obtained and, before I knew it, I had been practising for five years.

I was still young, I was still healthy and Viviane, who had been through hell and high water herself, was still my faithful companion. But Claude, an old friend from law school, had just fallen into a severe depression. And Bob, another friend, had just had a bed set up in his office. Did I have to go that far before I woke up? The time had come to give my career a kick in the pants.

Of course, this was easier to think about it than do! I wasn't even thirty yet and, already, I was questioning myself. Lost in the meanders of my existential crisis, I could suddenly see all the problems in my young professional's life closing in. Of course, I would have liked to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But, in the mood I was in, I was afraid they were the lights of a train heading right for me.

Once I was in the office, however, I remember that a light went on in my mind. It happened when one of our articling students told me about the harmonization program at the federal Department of Justice. Apparently, the Department was looking for lawyers interested in research to conduct an in-depth revision of the federal legislative corpus. To make a long story short, what was involved was updating the statutes to reflect the changes that had been made to the Civil Code in the 1994 reform by the Quebec legislature.

From a quality of life perspective, the option was definitely alluring. I would leave a basically precarious job for another where I might get a permanent position. I would leave a work schedule consisting of seven big Mondays for another where there would be time for a weekend. I would leave the whirlwind of a career based on stress and sink into the tranquillity of legal research. So what if I listened to my heart for once?

That is when I thought about hanging up my shingle. I had never rediscovered the pleasure I had experienced when writing my master's thesis on the rights of the unpaid vendor in Quebec civil law. I had explored terrifically interesting legal issues and been involved in fascinating research. Since then, I had been unable to truly devote myself to pure legal analysis. And now this opportunity had arisen. And I had no intention of letting it pass me by.

Once before, I had had a chance to deal with the issue of harmonizing federal statutes with the civil law. It was in the spring of '94 when I was still an articling student. As I was leaving a seminar on the new Civil Code of Quebec, I fell in with my mentor, Mr. Winner. He was indeed a winner and a very effective litigation lawyer. He had a scintillating presence, a very characteristic way of talking while blinking his eyes and a subtle intelligence. We strode through the crowd lining the halls of the Alexis Nihon Plaza. Mr. Winner turned towards me, his eyes half closed.

We have the time to go eat something before the three o'clock session, don't we?

Oh, I'm with you, I said ingenuously.

That's the stuff, my boy, said Mr. Winner with a mocking grin.

After crossing St. Catherine, I caught sight of the façade of a small bistro that seemed to be our destination. On the red awning above the entrance was written "À la soupe" in gold letters. Mr. Winner gestured to the waiter with a snap of his fingers. He invited us to sit at a small round table near the window in the smoking section and then took our orders. Basquaise chicken, trout filet, one bill.

While we waited for our food, Mr. Winner lit up a Gauloise and then, frowning, edified me with a few comments on the morning's information session.

It's quite a change, especially for the municipalities.

You mean because of the introduction of "prior claims", I asked.

I am not sure how the judges are going to interpret that, Mr. Winner said with a grimace, two columns of bluish smoke issuing from his nostrils. I'm thinking about what could happen in case of the bankruptcy of a debtor, he added.

My mentor's finely honed legal mind had already identified a problem that left me a little stunned at the time. I maintained a wise silence while my mentor reflected and pulled more deeply on his little carcinogenic stick. I was discretely eyeing our neighbours' orders when Mr. Winner's voice suddenly rang out.

In my opinion, there could be a problem at some point in bringing the law into alignment as between Parliament and the Quebec legislator.

Yes, but the Civil Code of Quebec is the fundamental law of the province, right?, said I, rather artlessly.

I fully agree! Mr. Winner replied. Except that if the two legislators starting using separate terminologies and concepts, we could find ourselves in a funny situation that would not be at all amusing.

In my naïveté, I let myself imagine all the litigation that this "funny situation" might lead to. And I didn't understand why that could be a problem. After all, the more litigation, the more potential clients, the better things go at the office, I told myself. But my mentor did not share my opinion. For him, the rights of his clients might be at stake and that was a torment to him.

It must be said that Gold, Brick and Associates was a firm that was rolling in money. It also had a legal treasure trove of wisdom in the person of Mr. Wise. He was the patriarch of the firm, with a large white moustache and a light pair of rectangular glasses handing at the end of his nose and had been in practice for twenty-five years. He was a specialist in civil law, and no one, especially not the senior partners, hesitated to consult him. His advice was invariably followed.

Back in the office, Mr. Winner returned to his earlier line of thought. This time, he found a more battle-hardened ear than mine when he talked with Mr. Wise. The latter listened to his colleague's fears about the transformations that the law of security on property had just undergone.

The Quebec legislator is abandoning the privileges given to the municipalities in respect of their property tax liabilities, Mr. Winner began. That could pose a problem.

It gives them a prior claim, replied Mr. Wise. In sum, the legislator is simplifying things for them. They don't even have to register their claim!

In bankruptcy and insolvency, added Mr. Winner, that might not be so simple.

There's no doubt that they are going to run into some trouble because a prior claim probably does not constitute a real security. The trustees in bankruptcy will no longer recognize them as secured creditors. Now that could be a problem.

Because when they changed the Code, they should have changed the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act.

And the other federal statutes, explained Mr. Wise. But, it's up to the other Parliament to do that.

When I think that not so long ago you were just beginning at the firm wearing a suit too big for you and now, look at you on the podium, teaching our colleagues like a professor about the harmonization of the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act.

Oh, Mr. Winner, if you knew how hard the way seemed sometimes.

But you arrived, François, you arrived. And, indeed, just to highlight your accomplishment, I have a little gift for you.

Mr. Winner held out to me a rectangular package soberly wrapped in a purple-coloured gift wrap with fine golden lines. While I tore off the wrapping, Mr. Winner told me he had recently started making his own wine. At the moment, I didn't understand why my former mentor was talking about his new hobby. I grasped the allusion when I opened the gift. It was a bottle of red wine. I burst into laughter when I read the label that Mr. Winner had placed on the bottle. Endowed with an ironic sense of humour, he had baptized his wine "Cuvée Château D'Amos".

Once again it was spring. Viviane had moved in with me several months ago. She had finally managed to open her second dental clinic in downtown Ottawa. As for me, I had obtained permanent status. We managed very well in my little apartment. At least, that's what I thought. Until, one evening in May, we were finishing an excellent fettuccine, and Viviane made a remark that would change our lives.

Perhaps we should think about buying a house, François, she said looking at the walls and the ceiling. Your apartment's nice, but it's small.

Why do you say that? We're not comfortable together?

Of course. But what I'm telling you is that we might get in each other's way now that we're going to be three.

That we're going to be… You mean…

That's exactly what I want to tell you! I went to see my gynaecologist this afternoon. It's due in December!

I jumped up and went to kiss the woman who would be the mother of my first child. With tears in my eyes, I realized that our love had created a separate human being who would soon be forcefully expressing himself in the garden of our house, the one we would be buying in the coming weeks. The future had indeed found its glamour again and now glittered on the horizon, shining and inviting.

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