By William Tetley, Q.C.
One of the great experiences of students at Laval University Law Faculty in the 40’s and 50’s was to study constitutional law under professor Louis-Philippe Pigeon, a famous practitioner in and out of court and eventually a judge of the Supreme Court of Canada. I had studied constitutional law under renowned Professor Frank R. Scott at McGill in first year law and then had transferred to Laval for second year where I took constitutional law all over again, but with Prof Pigeon. Both Scott and Pigeon were towering figures but whereas Scott was open to discussion and debate, albeit on his terms, no one ever dared ask Pigeon a question, until someone had the temerity to do so, in our class in 1950.
It was hot day and we sat packed together in rows in a small room, with the windows closed. Someone either Jean Bienvenue (later a Quebec Cabinet Minsiter and Judge of the Superior Court) or Philippe Casgrain (later senior partner of the giant national law firm of Fraser Milner Casgrain) or Gaby Lapointe (flamboyant and famous criminal lawyer) put his hand up to ask a question. We all drew in our collective breath at such audacity and Pigeon was also very surprised. Finally Pigeon said "oui" in his very high pitched voice and the student said "puis-je poser une question?" Pigeon reflected and said "oui" and the student said "Puis-je ouvrir la fenêtre?" Pigeon reflected again and said "non" and that was the end of the Prof. Pigeon’s version of the Socratic method for the day.
The next day the same student raised his hand, we students were doubly astounded and Pigeon delayed, being himself quite suspicious. Eventually he said "oui" and the student asked "Puis-je réitérer ma question de hier?" Pigeon replied "non" in his high pitched voice and that was the beginning and end of the Pigeon’s Socratic method for the year and no doubt thereafter.
Pigeon was indirectly instrumental in René Lévesque not completing his third year of law. Lévesque the inveterate smoker as he was when he was Prime Minister of Quebec, was caught smoking in class by Pigeon and refused to apologize as required by the Law Faculty. Lévesque never went back to law school, being more attracted to journalism. "Listen, I’m not interested in passing those exams, because I’ll never practice. All I want to do in life is to write, nothing else."
Pigeon was a lawyer of the old school – a generalist who also had a specialist's knowledge of many, many subjects, who could go into court and plead on either side of any dispute under the Civil Code, the Municipal Code, the Labour Code and the Constitution. Once I was in Vice-Dean Guy Hudon's office, (he was the only permanent professor at Laval) when he learned that the professor of civil procedure would be absent. At that moment Pigeon came in, after completing his constitutional law lecture and Hudon asked Pigeon to act as a replacement. Pigeon nodded assent, asked what article of the Code of Procedure we were at, took Hudon's copy of the Code and then entered the class to give a masterful lecture.
Hudon, a Conservative and adviser to Prime Minister Duplessis, was a rival of Pigeon, who was a Liberal and the adviser to Adélard Godbout, the Liberal Leader of the Opposition. During question period in the National Assembly (then known as the Legislative Assembly), Hudon would stand behind the green curtain on the left side of the Speaker's Chair and advise Duplessis, when a particular question of the Opposition was difficult. Pigeon stood behind the same curtain on the other side and fed questions and advice to Godbout. When the question period was over, the two adversaries - Hudon and Pigeon - would walk out arm-in-arm, complaining audibly about the state of politics and politicians.
Pigeon, as a lawyer, was also an author of erudite, beautifully written, law review quality articles; witness his paper presented at the Annual Meeting of The Canadian Bar Association at Quebec City in 1960. It was entitled "Some Badly Needed Bankruptcy Reforms", which makes sense even today. His opus, however, was his series of lectures to civil servants, which was turned into a pamphlet "Rédaction et interprétation des lois", 1965 and then a book. Like him, the text is a masterpiece of concision, accuracy and relentless good sense, but given, without any doubts or concessions. Will there ever be another L.-P. Pigeon?
William Tetley, Q.C., LL.L (Laval 1951), practised law from 1952 to 1970 in the law firm now known as Fasken Martineau DuMoulin. He was a member of Bourassa’s Cabinet from 1970 to 1976 and since then has taught law at McGill University. He serves as counsel to Langlois Kronström Desjardins in Montreal and Quebec City. Professor Tetley is presently writing a memoir of his experiences in the practice of law, politics and university teaching.
William Tetley QC,
Professor, McGill University
Email: william [dot] tetley [at] mcgill [dot] ca (William Tetley)
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