BC Supreme Court Justice says goodbye to the bench, and to Bowen Island

It’s been a little over three weeks since her official retirement, but BC Supreme Court Justice and Bowen Islander Cathy Bruce has not settled into her new life quite yet.

In July, she made the decision to release John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, a couple found guilty of terrorism-related charges by a jury roughly a year earlier. She concluded that the couple could have never carried out their crime, planting pressure cooker bombs in the BC legislature, if the RCMP had not done so much to help them along. Now that the Crown is appealing that decision, Bruce needs to go through the transcription of the jury charge for accuracy so it can be used in the upcoming trial.

Bruce says she’s going to buckle down and get the job done in the next few weeks, so she can move on to a completely new chapter in her life: working with her husband as a bed and breakfast operator on Quadra Island. When asked whether she thinks her judicial mindset will be hard to shake, whether it will kick into gear every time she opens a newspaper she replies, “I certainly hope not!”

She pursued a law career, she says, for two reasons: economic stability and a romantic interest.

“First of all I came from a very poor family and being economically independent was very important to me because I saw how my mother struggled, with five kids and one bathroom. She worked hard. She worked full-time all the time, and it was tough for her. I wanted to make sure I was never poor,” Bruce says. “And then I had a crush on a guy who was going into law. He was going to open up his own legal aid shop and we were going to save one person at a time…”

Her crush, she says, never made it through law school, but she graduated near the top of the UBC law class of 1976. She also went on to the London School of Economics for a Masters.

One of her first jobs as a lawyer was working with the Canadian Airline Flight Attendants Association. 

“They were seeking a declaration that it was unlawful for them to require women to leave the job of flight attendant when they became pregnant,” says Bruce. “We won that case, and the court found that it was unlawful and a breech of the human rights code for the airlines to discriminate against women in that way.”

The job that followed, naturally, required Bruce to help the Union negotiate for maternity uniforms in their collective agreement.

“Pacific Western Union [the airline] was pretty funny, they had a nice group of managers bargaining against us but, they sent back this proposal from their bean counters and they costed-out millions of dollars for these uniforms because they said that every nine months, every flight attendant would have a baby! And we kept saying, I don’t think that is going to happen…”

Bruce continued her career with a focus on labour law, and also spent time in the early 1990s working on a report addressing gender equality in all aspects of British Columbia’s justice system. In 1998, she was appointed as a provincial court judge.

“I had to take a crash course in criminal law,” says Bruce. “And then they closed the Burnaby courthouse in 2002 alongside many other BC courthouses in an austerity measure. So they transferred me to Main Street, where I did nothing but criminal work for four years. It was sink or swim, and I think by the end of that, in 2006 when I was appointed to the Supreme Court I knew a lot of criminal law. And after a couple of years in the Supreme Court they used me as a criminal judge.”

She jokes that while sitting in provincial court, she earned the nickname “Let’em loose-Bruce.” While explaining that she had a lot of empathy for people with drug addictions and alcohol problems, she adds that her perspective was not entirely unique for a judge in provincial court.

“I think the impetus for the creation of a community court was a recognition by the judges that you can’t just put them in jail you have to get them housing, and you have to get them medical care, and you have to get them counseling. You have to do something for them so they can actually help themselves.”

Bruce says that when she moved into the Supreme Court, the preservation of that mentality was harder to maintain, and made her stand out a little more from her fellow judges. The nature of the cases she heard meant there was more at stake in each decision.

“An aboriginal offender who’s committed his eighth sexual assault of a young girl on one of the reserves is a danger. Even though the reason he’s in that position is systemic – his background, his fetal alcohol syndrome, his parents lack of proper upbringing for him, his wholly dysfunctional family life brought him to this point – there comes a time when you can’t do anything else but warehouse him otherwise you are going to destroy so many other lives.”

Mostly, Bruce says, throughout her career she was good at not bringing her work home with her in either the physical and emotional sense.

“Towards the end, I must admit that some of my more horrible cases got to me a little bit,” she says. “I had a really bad child sexual abuse case about, last June, and for the very first time I just emotionally couldn’t handle it. It was so horrendous, I just didn’t know where to go with my feelings about it. And that was a sign that it was time to leave. They say that a judge only has so many judgements they can write, and I think I was hitting the max.”

Looking back on the past few years, Bruce says one really positive aspect of her work has been the commute, and the fact that the express but run by Peter King gave her the opportunity not only to leave her car at home but also to connect with a whole new group of people. She says that the home she and her husband have owned for almost ten years sold almost instantly, hastening their move to Quadra Island.

“Just as we were starting to get comfortable here,” she says.

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