Cecilia I. Johnstone

Cecilia Johnstone, justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench, former president of the Canadian Bar Association, active American Bar Association member, and a visionary leader and change agent  died on April 15, 2006, in Edmonton. She was an extraordinary woman and will be remembered by everyone who knew her for her spirit and energy. In 2007 the Canadian Bar Association established the Cecilia I. Johnstone Award to recognize women who have achieved professional excellence in their field and influenced other women to pursue legal careers, supported other women in career advancement or opened doors for women lawyers in a variety of job settings that historically were closed to them. 

Here are three tributes to Cecilia from Carol Phillips, Chuck Coulter and Gary Munneke.

My remembrances of Cecilia are that she was an extraordinary person who was interested in everyone around her. I met her in 1995, shortly after she completed her term as president of the Canadian Bar Association, and before she became Madame Justice of the Canadian Courts. She and I met while working on various projects of the ABA Law Practice Management Section, and immediately became friends. She was a person who wanted to know you, help you, make you laugh and enjoy every moment you spent with her. She was like that with everyone. She had the rare combination of beauty, intelligence and compassion. Her accomplishments were staggering, yet she never let on that she had done so much. Most important, she cared about whatever she set out to do.

The memory of Cecilia I shall always treasure is when she became the travel agent for a group of us from the Section, and arranged a fabulous trip in Canada. There were 10 of us, and she made all the arrangements. She picked us up at the Edmonton Airport and we stayed at her beautiful home, then set off to see the sights of Jasper National Park, the Columbia Ice Fields, absolutely gorgeous vistas and Lake Louise, and then to attend the Section meeting at the Banff Springs Hotel. The picnic she and her husband John arranged at Jasper National Park will always be my favorite memory of Cecilia. She made sure every bite of lunch was perfect, and each sip of wine exceptional. I can still feel the sun of the gorgeous day and see the clear water at that picnic sight. She is gone, but never forgotten by all of us who knew and loved her. I shall always remember her smiling, with a twinkle in her eye telling you she was just about to do or say something that would make you laugh. That is the Cecilia we all knew and loved.

—Carol Phillips

I had the distinct pleasure of working with Cecilia while we were active members of the ABA Law Practice Management Section. Cecilia brought her infectious zest for life wherever she was, be it a committee meeting, a business lunch, a Council meeting, a dinner party or some athletic endeavor. Her adventurous spirit led many volunteers on ventures they would never have undertaken without Cecilia’s energy, enthusiasm and prodding. While she brought fun and adventure into these activities, she also provided valuable insight, helped to keep the big picture in view, and consistently did what she promised to do.Her election as president of the Canadian Bar Association was a major achievement, among many, but she never talked much about what she had done. She brought compassion and a strong concern for justice to the Canadian courts, and she cared deeply about her friends, her colleagues, her clients and her causes. She fought a long health battle with courage and spirit. Cecilia enriched the lives of so many, and we give thanks for the time she shared with us.
—Chuck Coulter

When the news reached me that Cecilia Johnstone had finally succumbed to the foe she had battled for so long, I was saddened to learn that someone so important in my own life (and I would venture in the lives of many others as well) would no longer be there as confidante, friend and advisor. I was heartened to think that the wisdom, generosity and integrity that Cecilia brought to everyone she encountered will live on in the hearts and memories of all those she touched. I will miss her; we all will.

Lest I get carried away proclaiming Cecilia’s sainthood, she would be the first to tell me to pipedown and keep it real. So rather than recounting her many significant accomplishments, I’ll share a few memories that I think Cecilia would enjoy having retold. When Cecilia invited the Law Practice Management Section to come to Banff, in her belovedAlberta, she admonished her American friends that we had to come to Canada to see the “real Rocky Mountains, not the glorified hills of Colorado.” The Section came, not once but twice, and Cecilia welcomed us in a way that only Cecilia could. On certain subjects, Cecilia’s opinions were quite strong, such as the importance of equal opportunity for women (a principle she lived rather than just proclaimed), and opposition to the “barbarous” institution of capital punishment (“I don’t see how you Americans can call yourselves civilized when you are the only country outside the Third World that still permits capital punishment,” she often reminded us).

On other topics, Cecilia defused controversy with humor. Regarding Canadian bilingualism, Cecilia told how, as president of the Canadian Bar Association, she was required to give all of her speeches in both French and English, even though her own French was fractured, and her audiences, especially in Western Canada, often knew less French than she did. She could run through a litany of her mispronunciations, but she was always pleased that she never said anything really offensive in French by mistake.

Regarding hockey in America, she quickly pointed out that she’d like to see an NHL team from the States win a single game without a roster well-stocked with Canadian players. Gretzky could never be forgiven for abandoning the Edmonton Oilers for Los Angeles, although she opined that Los Angeles was a fine place to visit.

And speaking of places to visit, the one American city Cecilia loved coming back to again and again was New York. She returned to the Big Apple as often as she could, as recently as Thanksgiving (American, not Canadian) in 2005. My wife, Sharon, and I met Cecilia there, and it turns out this was our last visit with her. Although she claimed the trip was for shopping, shows and food, it was we all knew to say goodbye. We had a wonderful evening with good wine, excellent food and scintillating conversation. We reminisced about past adventures and future plans, but Cecilia was frank, telling us in a way that only Cecilia could, that she “might not get back to New York for a while.” She said to say hello to all her friends in the States, and to tell them that they missed a wonderful evening.

All who knew Cecilia Johnstone possess similar memories of their own, involving wonderful evenings and interesting days, whether deep in the Canadian Rockies, on the sidewalks of NewYork, or some other place along the path of life. Take a moment as you read this to recall your own experiences as a part of Cecilia’s life, and remember that her formula was simple: do good,live well and savor friends. I think she would much rather the rest of us honor her by employingher formula for living than making a “fuss,” as she would put it, about her death.

—Gary Munneke

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