Isaac, Julius 1928–
Julius Isaac 1928–
Former Federal Court of Canada Chief Justice Julius Isaac spent several months between 2001 and 2002 heading an official inquiry into violence and political corruption in Jamaica. The choice of the senior Canadian jurist was not an entirely curious one, for Isaac was a native of the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, and the first person of color to serve as chief justice on the bench of the Federal Court of Canada. He has also been a prominent member of Toronto’s expatriate West Indian community, and for a time served as director of the city’s famed Caribana Festival.
Isaac was born in Grenada in 1928 when it was still a part of the British colonial empire. He arrived in Canada in 1955 to study at the University of Toronto, where he co-founded its West Indies Student Association. To pay his expenses he worked as a maintenance person at the Toronto Star newspaper, and then took a job as a railway porter. Even before earning his law degree he served as legal advisor to the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transport and Other Workers, the union of sleeping-and parlour-car porters. Admitted to the Ontario Bar in 1960, Isaac practiced law in that province and in Saskatchewan after 1962. He returned to Grenada for a year to serve as a senior magistrate there in the late 1960s. After 1971 he served in various posts with the Canada Department of Justice for the next 18 years. He then became the leading attorney for the Ontario Securities Commission.
Isaac achieved the “Queen’s Counsel” designation in 1975, marking him as an elite-level senior lawyer or advocate within the Canadian legal system. He served as Crown prosecutor and became the assistant deputy attorney general of Canada. Appointed as a judge to the bench of the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1989, he advanced to the post of chief justice of the Federal Court of Canada on December 23, 1991. His appointment by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made him the first black named to that distinguished position. It was a notable honor in a country where just 13 percent of the population belongs to a minority group.
Isaac served almost eight years as chief justice. In 1997 he became the subject of a Federal Department of Justice inquiry, after it was revealed that Isaac had met with war-crimes prosecutors who were attempting to deport alleged Nazis living in Canada. Isaac allegedly met with Canadian deputy justice minister Ted Thompson to discuss the slow pace of the proceedings. Attorneys for the suspected Nazi war criminals were outraged, claiming that the meeting compromised judicial impartiality. Canada’s Supreme Court looked into the matter and issued a statement agreeing that it was incorrect for Isaac to have met with the prosecutors, but declaring that the meeting had not compromised the fairness of the trial.
Isaac resigned from the Federal Court of Canada on September 1, 1999. He was subsequently appointed as a member of the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada. In July of 2001, riots killed 27 in Kingston, Jamaica. The west side of the capital city was a rough area, and had an annual homicide rate hovering around 900. It was thought that the city was overrun by gangs with ties to Jamaica’s political establishment. Isaac was named to head a three-person inquiry commission to look into the matter.
At a Glance…
Born Julius Alexander Isaac, 1928, in Grenada; three children. Education: University of Toronto, undergraduate and law degrees.
Career: Admitted to the Ontario Bar, 1960; to the Saskatchewan Bar, 1962; to the Grenada Bar, 1965, and to the Alberta Bar, 1981; attorney in Ontario and Saskatchewan, 1960s; economic Development Corp of Saskatchewan, legal advisor. Returned to Grenada to serve as senior magistrate, 1969-70; Canada Department of Justice, 1971-89; appointed “Queen’s Counsel,” 1975; director, Edmonton Regional Office; assistant deputy attorney general; prosecutor and counsel. Appointed judge on the bench of the Supreme Court of Ontario, 1989; named chief justice of the Federal Court of Canada, 1991-99; served as legal advisor to the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transport and Other Workers.
Memberships: Grenada Association of Toronto, former president; Caribana Festival of Toronto, former director and treasurer.
Awards: Commemorative Medal of Canada, 1992; Canadian Black Achievement Award in Law; Canadian Association of Black Lawyers Award of Recognition for Outstanding Contribution to Legal Profession, 1997; Silver Jubilee Award of Grenada, 1999; Jackie Robinson’s Distinguished Achievement Award, 2001; honorary doctorates: University of Windsor, 1994; University of West Indies, 2000.
Addresses: Office —Federal Court of Canada, Kent & Wellington Sts., Ottawa, ON, K1A 0H9, Canada.
Isaac’s West Kingston commission inquiry was charged with investigating the actions of Jamaican security forces during the melee. The months-long inquiry presented challenges on several fronts—legal, political, and even personal. Isaac was accused of bias in the proceedings by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The same charges were uttered by a lawyer from Grenada, Michael Sylvester, who accused Isaac of harboring a personal bias against JLP leader Edward Seaga. The fracas had its origins in the early 1980s, when a socialist prime minister of Grenada, Maurice Bishop, was overthrown and killed by a hard-line Marxist group. The crisis led U.S. forces to invade the island in a show of military strength in order to restore democracy.
Seaga was prime minister of Jamaica at that time and was one of several Caribbean political leaders who appeared before the press with U.S. President Ronald Reagan when news of the invasion was announced. The Jamaica Observer quoted from Sylvester’s affidavit about a conversation he had with the Canadian judge in the late 1990s, in which Isaac “stated to me he would never like to see Mr. Seaga return as prime minister of Jamaica,” the newspaper reported.
Sylvester hoped to prove with the affidavit that Isaac was biased and thus should be removed from the official inquiry into the Kingston riots, but the Grenada Bar Association came to Isaac’s defense and disparaged Sylvester. “Justice Isaac symbolises the highest qualities of the legal profession and his enviable achievements speak volumes of his character, integrity, competence, eminence, brilliance, professionalism, hard work, discipline and fearless adherence to, and respect for the rule of law,” its statement asserted, according to a report in the Jamaica Observer.
Jamaica Observer columnist Mark A. Wignall recounted the events surrounding the invasion and Seaga’s ties to the Reagan Administration. “What I do know is that the typical Grenadian then, especially those in the intelligentsia like Julius Isaac, would have been fiercely opposed to the invasion, especially the role played by Eddie Seaga in it,” Wignall remarked. Leslie Pierre, a Grenadian journalist who was jailed during the Bishop era, also defended Isaac: “Julius Isaac is a man of the highest integrity and he could not have reached the position of chief justice of Canada, the first black to reach that position, unless he was a man of integrity,” Pierre told the Jamaica Observer.
Isaac returned to Canada in April of 2002. He is the recipient of honorary degrees and many awards, including the Commemorative Medal of Canada, the Canadian Black Achievement Award in Law, and the Silver Jubilee Award of Grenada. He has served as director and treasurer of Toronto’s annual summer Caribana festival, the largest Caribbean-heritage event in North America, and as cochair of the black studies program at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has also been active in groups that advocate reform of Canadian immigration laws.
Calgary Herald, May 26, 1997, p. A16.
Globe and Mail, September 8, 2001.
Jamaica Observer, November 1, 2001; November 30, 2001; December 7, 2001.
Maclean’s, June 9, 1997, p. 35; July 7, 1997, p. 35;
May 17, 1999, p. 9; August 20, 2001, p. 13.
Washington Post, December 29, 1997, p. Al.
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