When the nice old lady in the little red sports car pulled up to their school, students at St. Augustine’s Elementary in Vancouver knew they were in for a special day.
|Proudfoot: An Order of B.C. recipient.|
That woman, Patricia Mathilda Proudfoot, passed away last fall at the age of 91, her death generating not only sadness in the St. Augustine’s community, but also laudatory news stories and published memorials about her trailblazing legacy as British Columbia’s first female judge at three levels of the courts.
On Nov. 25, 2019, a special joint sitting of B.C.’s Court of Appeal, Supreme Court, and Provincial Court took place at the Vancouver Law Courts in honour of Proudfoot, with members of the judiciary gathering to remember her and her contributions to the legal profession.
Accounts of her life largely omitted what she meant not only to St. Augustine’s school and parish, but also to the Archdiocese of Vancouver. These contributions were formally recognized in 2013 when Archbishop J. Michael Miller conferred on her the cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (for Church and Pope), the highest Catholic award given to lay people.
Observers and acquaintances agree that the mark she left on society can be found not only in the example she set by quietly living out the principles of her Catholic faith, but also in the enduring nature of her principle- and common-sense-based jurisprudence.
Nowhere is this more evident than in her 1993 ruling in Rodriguez v. The Attorney General of B.C., when, sitting as a Justice of the B.C. Court of Appeal, Proudfoot and another judge upheld a lower-court ruling that denied euthanasia-advocate Sue Rodriguez the right to an assisted suicide – a ruling that was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada later that year. (In 2015, however, that same court reversed itself and legalized assisted suicide.)
Today, as the federal government looks at expanding the circumstances in which Canadians can obtain “medical assistance in dying,” and with increasing international evidence that liberal euthanasia laws are leading to people being killed without their consent, Proudfoot’s warning about potential abuses of assisted suicide looks prophetic. “There is reason to fear that homicide of the terminally ill for ignoble motives may readily be disguised as aiding suicide,” she wrote.
“I think she called it right on,” said Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. “What you have with this legislation in Canada [is] the perfect cover-up for murder.”
Proudfoot was the youngest of 10 children (nine girls and a boy) born into the German-speaking, wheat-farming Fahlam family of Kronau, Sask. Proudfoot told an interviewer for the Oral History Project at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law that when the double-whammy of Depression and Dust Bowl drought led to the farm’s ruin, her parents and seven of the children, including Patricia, drove in a McLaughlin-Buick – their belongings towed behind in a homemade trailer – to Rutland, in B.C.’s Okanagan, to begin anew as fruit farmers. “Dad arrived, literally, with empty pockets,” she recalled.
Her only surviving sibling, Helen Schaeffer, 92, of Summerland, continued the story in an interview with The B.C. Catholic. “We were all raised Catholic. We went to church regularly at St. Theresa’s [parish in Kelowna],” she said. “We even had to go on Saturdays. We had a wonderful upbringing. Mother never preached to us, just set a good example.” She recalls her famous sister as being somewhat of a tomboy, extremely sports-minded, very bright in school, and wanting to be a lawyer from a very young age.
Proudfoot worked at up to three jobs to pay university tuition, graduated from UBC law school in 1952, and was called to the bar the following year, practising until she was appointed to the B.C. Provincial Court in 1971 – the first woman judge to sit in its criminal court. She was also the first woman judge appointed to the County Court of B.C., and to the B.C. Supreme Court. She was elevated to B.C.’s highest court, the Court of Appeal, in 1989 and retired in 2002.
|Proudfoot (r) with sister: Strength of character.|
His assessment is widely shared. “She treated her colleagues with respect and expected people to treat her the way she treated them,” said Lauri-Ann Fenlon, a current Justice of the B.C. Court of Appeal. “She was certainly a person of principle and good character.”
Although she and Proudfoot never served together, Fenlon said she knew Proudfoot by reputation as someone who approached the law in a very practical, common-sense way. Importantly, “she had courage – a strength of character.”
Other colleagues support the assessment. Mary Margaret MacKinnon, who serves as general counsel to both the Archdiocese of Vancouver and the Catholic Independent Schools of Vancouver Archdiocese, sat with Proudfoot on several boards. She said Proudfoot continually raised new ideas and looked for fair solutions.
“She gave of her time and talent to the archdiocese, and we are all in a better place because of that,” MacKinnon says. “She was filled with wisdom and kindness and good judgment. More importantly, she had a fantastic sense of humour and capacity for fun.”
Evidence of both wisdom and humour can be found in an anecdote that an online commentator, Kerry Kozak, shared following Proudfoot’s passing on Oct. 9. “I was a ‘rookie’ Supreme Court clerk,” Kozak wrote, “[…] when Madam Justice Patricia Proudfoot came into the courtroom. At the same time, so did 16 naked men and woman – Doukhobors who were protesting criminal charges brought against them in Grand Forks. Proudfoot had all the windows opened in that courtroom on a very chilly, cold day in the old New Westminster courthouse. […] They were all dressed the next day.”
On other professional fronts, Proudfoot led the B.C. Royal Commission on the Incarceration of Female Offenders and was a member of the Committee on Sexual Offences against Children and Youths, the Canada Pension Appeals Board, and the Canadian Panel on Extraordinary Challenges for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
As a volunteer, she worked with Vancouver Foundation projects involving children and youth, and the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews. Additionally, she was an honorary director of Big Sisters of B.C., a long-time supporter of the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and sponsored at least five children in various countries through World Vision. Her many honours include three honorary degrees and membership in the Order of B.C.
Justice Patricia Proudfoot received the Order of British Columbia in 2007.
Proudfoot served the archdiocese as a member of the Advisory Committee on Clerical Sexual Misconduct from 2000 until 2015. Msgr. Gregory Smith, who was a fellow member of the committee until he left for studies in Rome in 2004, recalls well her solid counsel.
“I still marvel that for so many years we had someone of her stature serving, helping the Church deal with these critical issues – a tough-minded judge who had headed a Royal Commission looking into sexual abuse of female prisoners,” he said.
“It shows not only the depth of Pat Proudfoot’s commitment to the archdiocese, but also the depth of the archdiocese’s commitment to rooting out the destructive problem of sexual abuse by clergy.”
Proudfoot married travel writer Arthur Proudfoot in 1959, the marriage lasting 37 years until his death; they had no children. Schaeffer recalled that her sister drifted away from the Church for many years but returned with renewed faith later in life.
It was at St. Augustine’s Parish in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood where Proudfoot’s commitment to community and church took root most profoundly. “It’s pretty clear that in her life she was very passionate about many things,” said parishioner Lawrence Pillon, “but about young adults and children in particular. There are many examples where she extended her expertise and her support in so many ways. And we certainly felt it at the school.”
Pillon said Proudfoot’s contribution to the steering committee (now called Faith and Foundation), struck to build a new St. Augustine’s school, was exceptional. “I think her participation was one of the reasons it was so successful,” he said. Today, two of the three phases of the new school have been completed.
“Here was a person who didn’t have children in the school but felt [the call] to be part of this whole great effort,” said Pillon. Along the way, “she became very close to the teachers, and I just can’t say enough about how close she became to so many people in the community during those years.”
He said Proudfoot wanted to inspire people to do the best they could. “And sometimes in the church, you really have to have that inspiration, that courage, that dedication, and she certainly exemplified that.”
The funeral Mass for Patricia Proudfoot was held Nov. 2 of last year at St. Augustine’s Church. A great crowd of parishioners – young and old, friends and acquaintances, and co-workers and admirers – attended, filling parking lots and neighbourhood streets with their vehicles.
One car was missing, though: a little red BMW Z3 sports car that over the years had become so familiar to the St. Augustine’s community. Needless to say, that car – and the extraordinary woman who drove it – will not soon be forgotten.