Alex Macdonald was born in Vancouver in 1918, son of B.C. Attorney-General M.A. Macdonald. He became secretary to CCF leader M.J. Coldwell in 1944 and twice ran unsuccessfully as a CCFer in B.C. before being elected as an NDP MLA for Vancouver-Kingsway in 1957. He became B.C.'s longest sitting MLA and moved into his father's former office as Attorney-General in 1972. My Dear Legs: Letters to a Young Social Democrat (1985) recalls his life in politics and gives advice to Hugh Legg, an NDP researcher approximately half Macdonald's age. In Alex in Wonderland (1993) Macdonald argues for a kinder, fairer society through cooperation, decency and hard work. In 1983 he edited Penticton, 1908-1983: 75 Years to Remember, and in 1999 he vented his frustration with Outrage: Canada’s Justice System on Trial. He published Looking Backward in 2003.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
My Dear Legs...': Letters to a Young Social Democrat
Outrage: Canada’s Justice System on Trial (Raincoast $26.95)
Alex Macdonald has catalogued countless affronts to common sense from the annals of Canadian jurisprudence in Outrage: Canada’s Justice System on Trial (Raincoast $26.95).
“I wish not to be a Cassandra, spouting doom and gloom to no effect,” says the former NDP Attorney-General. But some liberals might view Macdonald’s litany of witty fulminations as fuel for Reformist fires of resentment.
Macdonald believes the right to silence of the accused is extremely problematic. The Young Offenders Act ‘thwarts natural justice.’ He’d like two or three places on the Supreme Court to be reserved for non-lawyers. Juries are unduly denied access to information about previous convictions of the accused. Supreme Court rulings trample on the constitutional powers of Parliament. And white collar crime is rampant.
Intending to raise the ‘mirth rate’, Alex Macdonald recently ran for the position of chancellor at SFU where he teaches constitutional law. He was philosophical about not winning. “If I’d won, I would have had to buy a new pair of pants.”
BW: You had your first brush with the law at age eleven. What happened?
Macdonald: I stole apples off a neighbour’s tree. My father got a police officer to call on me. So this big, burly, bluff, corpulent policeman shows up at our door. He’s towering over me. He’s frowning at me and interrogating me. I had visions of going to jail. It scared the hell out of me – that interview – and as a result of that, my criminal career was nipped in the bud. I had to own up to what I did.
BW: Do you seriously believe that we were better off in the old days?
Macdonald: Yes. Since the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms came in—and it’s a good Charter about freedom of expression and political liberties—the legal rights section has been taken too far by the Supreme Court of Canada. They’ve taken it further than the Americans have gone in suppressing truthful evidence in court. In a criminal trial today, the motions to suppress evidence are as important as the trial itself. Time and money is being devoured.
BW: Nowadays Section 56 of the Young Offenders’ Act says, ‘The young person is under no obligation to give a statement to a police officer.’ Would you change that?
Macdonald: Yes, I would. It’s ridiculous. For example, this lawyer Robert McIntosh was murdered in Squamish. He was looking after a doctor’s house when the doctor and his wife were in Mexico. The son had a party. McIntosh and his friend went over there, just trying to tone things down. He was beaten to death. And what do you get from the 150 people that were at the party? You get ‘no obligation’ for them to account for themselves. You get some false statements and you get no statements at all from those who were upstairs in the bedroom where McIntosh was killed. So you have an unsolved murder.
People at the party should have been – the next day – asked to give a statement under oath before a judicial officer. I’m not talking about beating somebody with a rubber truncheon or tricking them. I’m talking about a fair thing. They should give a statement on video as to what they know about something seriously horrendous that’s happened to society.
BW: Will toughening up the Young Offenders’ Act restrict crime? Or will it merely mollify public anger?
Macdonald: If we’re talking about longer jail sentences for young people, that’s not an answer. The jails are schools for crime; drugs get in; some of the guards are bribed or threatened. Even their families are threatened. I would say toughen up the criminal justice process. It takes a year to get a trial. By that time, a young person has forgotten the event. He’s forgotten any compassion he might have felt for the victim and he’s involved in a game. Will I get off? Will I beat the system? You must punish to deter unlawful conduct but it has to be swift–not a long technical trial a year later.
BW: The Rena Virk murder and recent high school shooting sprees have social origins. Do you think we should have laws to restrict violence in some media?
Macdonald: I sort of avoid that question because the information technology revolution is just picking up pace and it’s not going to stop. I think we’ve got to start with human beings. We can’t do it by suppressing freedom of expression, or censorship. It’s not possible but it’s also not desirable. You’ve got to support the good information and entertainment and knowledge that’s being spread, rather than trying to censor the bad.
You’ve got to build up people’s resistance through education, so that when they look at an ad supporting smoking or guns they can say, ‘Come on, these people are doing that to make money out of me and others. I want to closely criticize their operation, to evaluate it.’
BW: The Liberals recently adopted much of the Reform Party’s platform with regards to victims’ rights. Do you think the pendulum is starting to swing away from liberalism?
Macdonald: When you talk about victims’ rights, you’ve got to be careful. It’s sort of a populist cry – ‘What about the victim?’—but you’ve got to remember seven or eight hundred years ago all criminal law was about the victim. That is, it was about his family, or his extended family, taking revenge and retaliation against somebody else, taking the law into their own hands. The feuds would go on for generations.
Common law came in. They said, ‘What you have done is an offense against this person, undoubtedly, but it’s also an offense against the peace of our lord, the King, or it’s an offense against the community. The community is prosecuting, not the victim.’ The victims may have various motives. Most of them want revenge. They’re not too balanced about it, because they’ve been too personally involved. The community has to make the decision, represented by a sensible judge or a jury.
BW: Speaking of the death sentence, I notice you didn’t include your views on capital punishment in the book. What are they?
Macdonald: I’m against the death penalty. It’s never done anybody any good. (laughs). But you get a Clifford Olson... Would I feel morally upset if Clifford Olson was executed? Not as much as some people. Nevertheless, I’m against the death penalty. In the United States you see the extremes to which it’s gone. You have people on death row for up to 20 years, some of them, then they’re executed. You talk about cruel and unusual punishment!
BW: When you were Attorney-General, what were some of the actions you took that you’re proud of?
Macdonald: We revamped things enormously. We computerized the jails so we could have reliable figures for how many people were there, for how long, for what kind of offense, how old were they, what was their background. We also modernized the prosecution services.
BW: Do you have any regrets about your time in office?
Macdonald: No, I fixed what was crazily wrong. And I don’t have too many regrets about leaving active politics. It was always, ‘How do we win the next election? How do we win the next election?’ You had to speak the party line, rather than what you really thought.
BW: We’ve always had a rocky relationship with Ottawa…
Macdonald: Well, I’m not one to take up the ‘fight Ottawa’ thing. I suppose you’d call me a federalist. If there is more child poverty in Quebec and we have a chance to spend some dollars, I’m not so provincialist that I wouldn’t say ‘spend them where the need is greatest in Canada.’
BW: Using a letter grade, rate the performances of other Attorneys-General in B.C. and explain your ratings... BOB BONNER.
Macdonald: Well, you’ve got to give him a C- because of the Sommers case. Bonner was an articulate, suave Attorney-General, but Sommers was his Cabinet colleague and Sommers was taking bribes. That’s serious stuff. It was covered up for six years.
BW: ALLAN WILLIAMS
Macdonald: I’d give him very high marks. I’d give him a B+ because he knew his job very well. He also fought for the independence of the Attorney General’s office against Bill Bennett. So much so, that when Williams had a retirement dinner, Bill Bennett never showed up.
BW: GARDE GARDOM
Macdonald: He’s a friend of mine, so I pass
BW: BRIAN SMITH
Macdonald: The political opportunism of the man since he’s been Attorney-General sort of bothers me more than what he did in the office.
BW: BUD SMITH
Macdonald: Not a congenial human being. Too political. I’d give him a… I’d put him down as a…
BW: Bud Smith had to resign because he was caught having an intimate cell-phone conversation with a female reporter. Do you think the close monitoring of politicians’ lives is trampling on private liberty?
Macdonald: Yes, I do. Unless the private act affects a public policy decision. This private act of Bud Smith was of public significance because he was arranging his assignation–his extra-marital fling—with a member of the press gallery. He was discussing the prosecution of a particular case that was going on at that time. But there is too much snooping and probing into private things, I think.
BW: How do you view the ‘home invasion’ by the RCMP of Glen Clark’s home? And the presence of a BCTV camera crew?
Macdonald: Obviously there was a relationship between somebody at BCTV and the RCMP. I wouldn’t name Whatshisname... (Laughs). But whatever happened to tip off the TV station, that was a serious invasion of privacy.
BW: How do you view the mainstream media’s treatment of the NDP?
Macdonald: There’s no doubt they get a negative press. But so did Vander Zalm. He was a right-wing Social Crediter. The press are ‘anti’, that’s their job. They’re critics of the government and the government should accept a lot of that criticism because it will make them govern better.
Some of the criticism is really biased of course – they’ve got their own agendae and bile underneath the smile. Some of them are bad, but others like Vaughn Palmer are very critical but balanced. They’re good for democracy.
BW: Your book complains about what’s wrong with the justice system. What’s right about it?
Macdonald: The integrity of our judges, with very few exceptions, is very great. The judges are learned, they’re articulate; they’re humane. If they were elected, as they are in the United States, you’d have judicial corruption and favouritism on an enormous scale.
BW: If you hadn’t been a lawyer, what would you have wanted to be?
Macdonald: Not an academic. The university life is too isolated. And not a doctor. I would want to be a full-time author.
But I like the law. The law should be a training experience for the mind. It should lead you to every nook-and-cranny of human emotions and social events. It should be viewed as a service in the community – like health, like education. I’ve got a high regard for it.
BW: Given the choice, do you think you’d be a better judge or a better comedian?
Macdonald: (laughter) I wouldn’t be a good judge. I’m a natural fighter. I choose sides and I battle. I was offered a judgeship once by Ron Basford, before he came out of the closet, and I turned it down. I told Ron my attention span is too long. 1-55192-230-4
[BCBW SUMMER 1999]