The TerribleTempered Judge Chevrier
Canada’s most voluble jurist was in the third grade before he knew any Canadians spoke English. But now when he spies the slightest threat to Canada’s British traditions he fully earns the title of
AT THE opening of the British parliament a few years ago a bored MP on the Commons terrace surveyed the pomp of the royal departure and remarked to a colleague: “Ridiculous, you know, all these frills. F’rinstance that business of poking about the cellars of the House with torches in broad daylight looking for gunpowder, just because Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the place three hundred years ago ...” He was interrupted by a short angry man who confronted him and declared in a voice slightly flavored with a French accent: “Sir, I have overheard what you said and I resent it.”
The MP looked down with frigid dignity: “Who are you?”
“Who I am does not matter, sir,” came the reply. “But what you said does matter. You should certainly know that the British constitution is constructed only of customs and precedents—what you are pleased to call frills. If people like you have your way these frills will be snipped away one by one until some day an unskilled hand cuts into the very fabric of the constitution ...”
In tones of doom, accompanied by graphic gestures, he described his conception of opening day in a Mother of Parliaments shorn of frills— including royalty: “The new boss drives up, not in the coach of time-honored tradition at which you have just turned up your nose, but in a big shiny limousine—perhaps bullet-proofed; he isa president, perhaps a dictator; he is dressed in a business suit— perhaps even without a waistcoat! He rolls up his
sleeves, pounds on the table and roars, ‘all right, this meeting is open for business!’ ”
Leaving the speechless MP to ponder this horrendous picture, the stranger strode away.
The angry man is now a judge of the Supreme Court of Ontario. As dean of the trial division of the province’s highest court, Mr. Justice Edgar Rodolphe Eugene Chevrier no longer stalks enemies of the British constitution in public places. But in his own domain he has become the implacable scourge of all who fail, by omission or commission, to pay due respect to the major and minor rituals of the administration of Her Majesty’s justice, as humbly but proudly represented by Edgar Rodolphe Eugene Chevrier.
At sixty-six there is no trace of accent in the judge’s speech, although he acquired English comparatively late in life. “I was seven or eight before I knew there was an English language,” he told me recently, “even though I had heard the strange tongue my father spoke outside our home—he had learned his English among the Ottawa Irish and spoke with a strong brogue.”
Chevrier’s compact frame is surmounted by a shock of white hair, only now thinning. He has a humorous mouth and piercing eyes which catch fire on provocation. And there is no lack of fuel; high among the provocations that burn up the judge is any suggestion that Canadiens are loyal to Canada but indifferent to Canada’s British heritage.
On a visit to South Africa some years ago Chevrier’s name convinced Gen. J. B. M. Hertzog,
the Boer nationalist, that here was an ally. “In Pretoria he greeted me as though we were fellowconspirators in a holy war against Britain,” Chevrier told me indignantly. “I told him that I did not care to listen to such talk, that the vast majority of French Canadians did not feel as he did. I am afraid I was quite rude.”
Woe to the Careless Dresser
In 1940 Chevrier delivered what he calls “the proudest judgment I ever rendered” when he declared the Communist Party illegal in Canada. He did this by finding three Ottawa men guilty of circulating ànti-war pamphlets “tending to prejudice the safety of the state.” Under Defense of Canada Regulations at that time an organization represented by a man found guilty of that offense could, at the judge’s discretion, be declared illegal. Chevrier did so, and although his jurisdiction was provincial, federal Department of Justice officials decided his verdict was effective throughout Canada.
In peacetime, amid the murders and manslaughters, frauds and divorces and armed robberies which are the grist of the Supreme Court, Chevrier’s day-to-day vigilance seldom encounters major threats to the constitution. But, as he points out, he must guard against the snippings as well as the deep stabs. To this end he periodically threatens with a citation for contempt, with summary banishment from his court, or at best lectures
tartly and publicly such malefactors as:
• Lawyers who dress sloppily, principally by leaving off their waistcoats and trying to conceal this sartorial gaucherie by holding the inadequate folds of their gowns over bulging shirtfronts; lawyers who slouch, rattle coins in their pockets and cock feet on chair-rungs and dais while crossexamining, who come late for court and commit sundry other breaches of the etiquette of advocacy.
• Sheriffs and sheriffs’ officers who dress sloppily and fail to keep court premises and judges’ chambers housecleaned to the Queen’s taste.
• Male witnesses who dress sloppily, who use words Judge Chevrier has not admitted to the English language (“okay” is one), and who kiss their thumbs instead of the Bihle and thereby believe they have evaded the oath to tell the truth.
® Court attendants who dress sloppily.
® Female witnesses who dress sloppily, particularly in the matter of hats.
• Uniformed personnel of all varieties who ignore the Queen’s Regulations and Orders concerning dress.
This emphasis on clothing may seem unfair to the seriousness of Judge Chevrier’s solemn and sincere campaign, but he himself points out that it is by his clothes that a man reveals his attitude. “When you go to a reception held by the governor-general you wear your best clothes—well, the supreme court judges are no less representatives of the sovereign. A man who works at the honorable occupation of ditch-digging changes his clothes before he visits
his best gild or a beverage room. Thereby he shows respect for his girl (why he dresses for the beer parlor I do not know, because nothing good ever came out of those places). There is no reason why a person should not celebrate his participation in British justice by wearing his best clothes.”
Exempt from summary punishment but well within the reach of Chevrier’s wrath are municipal bodies in the court’s forty-seven circuit districts which do not maintain court premises on a level suitable to their high purpose (he once shocked Toronto by accusing the mayor of a most unToronto-like sin: failure to fly enough flags). For years he pursued a bitter vendetta against the ancient and dilapidated Carleton County Courthouse in Ottawa which he denounced as utterly unfit for the dispensing of royal justice. To witnesses and jurors he would apologize for their having to spend time in “this Black Hole of Calcutta.” Once when Ottawa’s winter breezes penetrated the moldering casements and chilled his neck Chevrier halted the case he was hearing and cried in alarm“Noah’s Ark has sprung another leak!”
All this, Chevrier admits sadly, has made him enemies and lost him friends. Occasionally a lawyer, smarting under a lesson in court protocol, has been known to compare the judge to a latter-day Canute sitting on a bench and ordering the tide of comfortable democratic progress to turn back. Court personnel, who are apt to feel his lash most frequently because they are more often in contact with him, sometimes
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refer to him as “the terrible-tempered Judge Chevrier” and grumble that when Chevrier holds court the man who trembles least is the prisoner at the bar.
The truth is that Chevrier is a man of sunny disposition. From time to time people who have business inside the hushed halls of Osgoode Hall in
Toronto, headquarters of the Ontario Supreme Court, are startled to hear the lilt of French folk songs, rendered by an energetic duet, emerging from the elevator shaft. But when the elevator reaches the listener’s floor it contains only a silent Judge Chevrier, clothed in dignity, and a poker-faced elevator operator named Albert Bitton.
“Sure, me and the judge sing Canadien songs when the spirit moves us,” Bitton told me.
It is equally untrue that any prisoner ever finds anything to be happy about in Chevrier’s steel-trap grasp of evi-
dence and incisive summing-up to a jury; but many a defendant has been accorded the unique privilege of hearing the cop who arrested him, the crown counsel who prosecutes him, the sheriff who guards him, the witness who testifies against him, converted from omnipotent ogres into fallible human beings via a severe dressing-down from Chevrier.
There was, for example, the soldier arrested for theft from army stores at Brampton, Ont. The principal witness against him, an army sergeant, clumped menacingly and confidently toward
the witness box, hatless and with his tunic nonchalantly open. He nodded to the judge as he passed.
Chevrier followed the sergeant’s progress with a cold eye. He was halted by Chevrier who ordered him in a penetrating voice: “Please go back to your seat, put on your cap, button up your tunic. Then come to the witness box, salute, take off your hat to be sworn, then replace it. You will conduct yourself in court exactly as you would in the presence of your commanding officer.”
A deep red suffusing his face and open throat, the embarrassed sergeant obeyed. The prisoner was seen to wear a small but happy smile.
Chevrier’s reply to critics of his letter-of-the-law enforcement of court procedure—including some rules they claim he invented himself—provides a lucid insight into one of the most remarkable ‘Canadien personalities in public life today. “Good Heavens, I don’t run a strict court because I feel any special deference is due me,” he told me. “I do these things because they need badly to be done in this age of Laissez faire, because I feel . . . well, that the Queen is present in my court. And every Canadian who has business with a court should feel the same way.
“Why? Simply because what the Queen stands for—the British constitution, the British way of doing things, are the most important manmade assets the world possesses today. When the lights go out on the British way, that will be the end of everything that makes life worth living for decent people. And we cannot preserve that system unless we also preserve the traditions, the precedents—yes, even the quirks—on which that system was built.”
Red Sashes For The Judges
Most reformers must content themselves with such rewards as the righteousness of their cause provides. But Chevrier’s campaign to date has been marked with a number of major victories. Some of these are measures for the restoration of the façade of traditionalism: For instance, due to Chevrier’s campaign among his colleagues, the justices of the Supreme Court of Ontario now wear, instead of drab black (and inexpensive) robes, colorful (and expensive) gowns of royal blue with red-and-black collars, red sashes and long mauve cuffs which extend from elbow to wrist.
Sheriffs and their deputies, whose regalia too often had deteriorated to threadbare blue serge suits with vestigial tab collars, now in some districts including Ottawa, London, Hamilton and Simcoe wear the costumes of their English counterparts — braided cutaway coats, cocked hats, lace ruffles tied over Roman collars, and lace cuffs. Assizes now open with an ancient ceremonial in which the judge enters behind a sheriff’s deputy bearing a sword “at carry.”
In some districts Supreme Court guards and ushers now wear navy blue uniforms with brass buttons, “in place,” says Chevrier distastefully, “of rubber - soled running shoes and unmatching pants. All that,” he adds, “took me fifteen years of disapproval to accomplish.”
Chevrier cites the robes of the justices as an example of how tradition can gradually fall into disuse. “They were the last gowns worn by the judges of the old province of Upper Canada,” he said, “and they are still worn by the Queen’s Bench Judges in England.” Ontario judges probably decided that the robes cost too much-judges pay for their own—so they took to buying ! cheaper black gowns. Chevrier took the
matter up l'epeatedly with the other judges and gradually won enough support to re-establish the ancient judicial rotes.
•‘The matter of wigs was discussed also,” said Chevrier wistfully, “but I had to compromise.”
Since the robes have to be imported from England, and since their somewhatgaudy design has caused them to be classified as “regalia” and subject to additional duty, the new garb is quite expensive. Chevrier said the cost was a personal matter with the judges, but a Toronto expert on regalia estimates the old black robe cost seventy-five dollars and the new gown more than two hundred dollars.
One Monday morning Chevrier mounted the bench in Toronto’s city hall to open the fall assizes. He surveyed the sparse attendance and said quietly: “1 see by the morning paper that three hundred and one thousand Toronto people attended sports events over the week end. Millions in other parts of the world would consider themselves incredibly blessed if they could receive the British justice we are dispensing here. Yet how many of these three hundred and one thousand today know of the treasure within their own walls? There is not even a flag on this heap of stones to indicate that British justice is being administered.”
This caused a stir in the somnolent warrens of city hall. Hiram McCallum, then mayor of Toronto and now general manager of the Canadian National Exhibition, blustered that “everybody knows that Toronto is more than willing to flag-wave at the slightest provocation.” Chevrier replied gravely that in this case Toronto was waving “one flag too few—there should be a flag over the courthouse entrance when the supreme court is in session.”
This caused genuine puzzlement in city hall. Nobody had heard of a courthouse entrance to that building.
“Go outside the west door,” advised Chevrier patiently, “crane your neck at a perilous angle, and you will be able to read the words Court House carved beautifully and artistically in stone.”
All that day little knots of city hall workers trooped out to investigate this curiosity for themselves, usually to the accompaniment of a surprised “well I’m damned —the judge is right.” For there, obscured by decades of precipitated smog and generations of pigeons, were the magic words.
Today the courthouse façade is scrubbed clean and legible, and a flag flies over it when Supreme Court assizes are in session.
Chevrier’s victory showdown with Carleton County Courthouse came after fifteen years of invective had failed.
One morning the judge, disposition not sweetened by mounting several flights of stairs (the lack of an elevator had long irked him, anyway) was informed that he was assigned to a courtroom he described later as “worse than a prison cell in the old days.”
Chevrier told the sheriff bluntly:
“I am about to adjourn the court and return to Toronto. I will continue to adjourn court until I am provided with proper accommodation in which to hold hearings of matters between the sovereign and the sovereign’s Canadian subjects.”
“I knew,” Chevrier later told me with a wry smile, “what it costs to run a supreme court hearing—the least item of which is the jury panel of several men at seven dollars a day.”
Carleton County Council and Ottawa City Council, which share the cost of the court, were licked, and they knew it. The old building was rebuilt, from cellar to attic and, appropriately,
Chevrier was invited to open it.
It was then that the civic officials
learned that they had done something far more important than rebuild a courthouse to please a crusty judge.
“Why,” Chevrier addressed them, “have I spoken on so many occasions, lost some friends, made some enemies, sometimes said harsh things and sometimes used ridicule in a crusade for the improvement of this courthouse? It. was because I hold British institutions in sacred respect in tire very deepest of my heart and soul; it was because I know them to be the nearest incarnation on earth of justice human and humane.”
He added “But I still think you might have put in an elevator.”
Having learned the effectiveness of a sharp blow to the pocket-book as an ally to a righteous cause, the judge has used it sparingly. In one court on his circuit he called the sheriff to the judges’ chamber to complain of its condition: “burnt matches all over
the floor, dust over everything, plaster falling from the ceiling—why, this place hasn’t been cleaned for weeks . . .” He brought his hand down on the desk to emphasize his point—and the hand stuck to the gummy surface. That was
the last straw. Chev ¡aer unleashed his awful threat to adjourn court day by day, with the overhead piling up, until the facilities were brought up to his standard. Shortly afterward when Chevrier left the chambers he was almost bowled over by a mob of men with buckets, mops, ladders, paint-pots and brushes. Since then that courthouse has been among the most spick“ and-span on the circuit.
Chevrier’s defense of British traditionalism was partially shaped bv listening to debates in the Ho lisie of Commons. In 1899, a twelve-year-old
a battered guitar and sang in a fine clear voice that filled the forests. They whacked out Flying Cloud, The Jam on Garry’s Rocks and Whalen’s Fate.
One day in 1934 an accountant from Saint John, Lansdowne Belyea, was riding on the CNR’s Ocean Limited when he heard Chamberlain in the smoking car, plunking away on a two-string guitar and singing.
In Saint John, Belyea introduced him to Messer, who then had a small but nameless band. “Where you from?” Messer asked.
“The woods,” said Chamberlain. He went on the air that night, sang Lonesome Valley Sally, and soon Messer’s group was billed as “The New Brunswick Lumberjacks.” Belyea, sensing that Chamberlain had a potentially fine voice, sent him to a singing teacher. She began by showing him how to shape his mouth.
“Lookit here, lady,” he said finally. “If I start thinking about the words they won’t come out. Good day.” Chamberlain’s voice, which grew in the great backwoods, was meant to be as free as, say, the call of a moose.
A year later Duke Neilsen happened along. A more unlikely candidate for rural rhythms there never was. His father, Julius Wilhelm Neilsen, a Dane, was playing cornet in a German circus band when John Philip Sousa heard him and brought him to America. His mother played the alto horn in a Salvation Army band in Woodstock, N.B. They met and married while Sousa was touring Canada. When he was eight Duke tootled the third cornet in the Salvation Army band. After his father died in 1927, Julius Jr. went into an orphanage, ran away, joined the navy as a boy bugler, left and worked as a razorback and roustabout with various American circuses.
Duke the Fire-Eater
Duke was nineteen, a promising young extrovert and banjo player, when he joined Messer in Saint John. A short time later a friend offered him an ancient bull fiddle if he could fix it. “I didn’t know anything about bull fiddles,” he said, “but I used to tinker with ears.” He fixed it in two days and learned to play it in one. “You might say,” he once told an interviewer, “that I was an overnight sensation.”
The New Brunswick Lumberjacks grew into a big act—nineteen pieces in all—which was featured at sportsmen’s shows in New York and Boston. In 1937, attired in checked shirts, britches and high boots, they toured night clubs, theatres and radio stations in the eastern U. S. At the painfully posh Brookline, Mass., Country Club - initiation fee five thousand dollars —they played for the Roosevelt family and were given honorary lifetime memberships. From the Lumberjacks, Messer formed a smaller group, Backwoods Breakdown, which played on an eastern CBC network. Under Neilsen’s circus influence the act acquired a marked sideshow character when it went on tour. Between numbers he gave demonstrations of fire-eating. On his own he augmented his income by wrestling tame bears in a theatre.
Messer, an earnest toiler, had his hands full with his two ebullient sidekicks. Once when they were playing as a trio on the radio, a string on Chamberlain’s guitar broke with a loud “pwang!” Neilsen laughed aloud. Seconds later Duke’s bass popped a cord. Chamberlain roared. Messer finished the tune alone, his face twisted in grief, while his two employees stomped around the studio drowning out his fiddle with bellowing guffaws.
Neilsen left Messer briefly in 1937, a iff cied a stiff shirt and a genteel
manner and joined a Montreal hotel’s chamber music quintet. While he was there, Benny Goodman—then the undisputed “King of Swing”—held a contest at Loew’s Theatre to find a bass player for a Canadian tour. Neilsen won the job. When the tour was over he headed back to Messer.
Messer had his ups and downs; he did well some months, poorly others. In 1939 he was glad to accept a salary of $12.50 a week to form an old-time band at CFCY, a new radio station in Charlottetown. His arrival from Saint John is still remembered in the island capital. A decrepit Model A Ford snorted to a stop outside the radio station. The roof was piled high with luggage; cartons of preserves were tied to the fenders and running hoard. While a crowd stood gaping, the old jalopy disgorged ten people—Chamberlain, his wife and four children; Messer, his wife and two.
That year Messer formed the Islanders. CBC listeners first heard their program announced on Armistice Day. Neilsen, who had carried on with the Lumberjacks after Messer left, joined the Islanders in 1940. In the summer they set out on their first tour of country dance halls, selling pictures of themselves to pay for gas. Today they travel in two late-model sedans and a station wagon.
Keeping tabs on Chamberlain and Neilsen has always been one of Messer’s biggest chores on the road. Once when the band was in Port Hawkeshury, N.S., laryngitis reduced Chamberlain’s voice to a whisper. While Messer was out (they always room together), he plastered his chest half an inch thick with mustard ointment. Then, because the ailment was more than skin-deep, he ate some. He couldn’t sing for a month.
Similarly, an overdose of magic nearly cost Neilsen his career. The Islanders were billeted overnight in private homes when they played Mulgrave, N.S. Neilsen was staying with an elderly Scottish woman. After supper, in appreciation of her hospitality, he trotted out some of his circus tricks. He capped his performance by eating some fire. There was no applause. Instead, the woman jumped up shouting, “The devil’s in this house.” When he last saw her, as he ran out the door, she was swinging a hatchet at his head.
Both Chamberlain and Neilsen claim to have turned down lucrative offers to leave Messer and perform elsewhere. In Chamberlain’s case it was Hollywood. On one of the New Brunswick Lumberjacks’ trips to New York, a talent scout proposed making a singing cowboy of him. Chamberlain declined.
“I couldn’t go without Don,” he said at the time. “He’s sort of my keeper.”
A few years ago Charlottetown was agog over a vacation visit by Arthur Fiedler, the personable conductor of the Boston Pops, another well-known orchestra. A tea party was laid on and CFCY scheduled a radio interview. No Fiedler. It developed later that the maestro had met Neilsen at Summerside the day before and spent the day swapping yarns with him in a garage Duke was living in while his home was being built. Fiedler listened to Neilsen’s anecdotes and his bass. He was sufficiently impressed with the latter to offer him a job.
“Thanks just the same, Art,” declared the Duke. “But J’m doing pretty good here.” ★