Saying “take care” to Professor Emeritus William F. Foster (1943-2021)


Published: 16Aug2021

We were deeply saddened to learn of the unexpected death of a beloved colleague and friend.

Professor Emeritus William F. Foster passed away on 10 August 2021.

Born in India and raised in New Zealand, Bill Foster joined the Faculty of Law as assistant professor in 1968. With research and teaching interests in tort, property law, real-estate transactions, and education law, he was promoted to associate professor in 1971 and to full professor in 1977. He was Sir William C. Macdonald Professor from 1994 until his retirement in 2011, when he was named emeritus professor. He was deeply devoted to the Faculty of Law from his arrival.

A fixture for many years on the third floor of Old Chancellor Day Hall, Bill Foster is remembered for his collegiality, true friendship, generosity, kindness, common sense, fairness, and grace. He offered especial support to colleagues teaching in his areas, sharing notes and books that were gratefully received. It is true that he mentored younger colleagues, providing a sympathetic ear, wise career and life advice, and reassuring support. But I have now learned that “mentor” is a word used of him by a colleague senior to him as well. Colleagues remember his firm moral compass. Whether on matters of hiring or curricular reform, he invariably took a long view. He was often smiling, always spoke thoughtfully, and, when he disagreed, did so lightly and constructively.

He was a memorable and appreciated teacher of the common law to generations of McGill students. In 1998–99, I had the privilege of being in his Torts class. Naturally, his beard, New Zealand accent, and habit of placing a shoe on the front row of desks, his knee jutting in the air, made him ripe for affectionate imitation at Skit Nite. As students, we knew he genuinely cared about us – and he continued to care about the activities and lives of his former students after they graduated. It was no surprise that, on McGill’s bicentennial, an alumnus nominated him as one of our faculty’s unsung heroes.

Bill Foster valued and embraced administrative service to the faculty and university and he did it superbly. He held three portfolios as associate dean and served as acting dean (1979–80) and interim dean (2003). He contributed significantly to service at the university level, chairing the University Appeals Committee and the University Grievance Committee, stepping in as interim secretary-general, and serving as associate provost from 2004 until his retirement.

While he always referred to his academic and administrative achievements with modesty, he made significant contributions at faculty and university levels. Colleagues who were with him during his stint as acting dean recall how much he did to hold the faculty together during extreme financial stringency. He inspired hope and confidence, never shirking from difficult but necessary decisions. It is an extraordinary testimony to his skills, steadiness, discretion, and stature within our community that he should have been chosen twice as acting or interim dean, on occasions separated by more than two decades. Leadership of the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT) regarded Bill Foster as eminently fair-minded and applauded him for a much-needed overhaul of the university’s statutes.

Bill Foster was highly active beyond McGill. He was a founding member of the Canadian Association for the Practical Study of Law in Education (CAPSLE) and his comprehensive scholarship on equality rights in the education sector remains an important contribution. He participated in the Canadian-South Africa Education Management Program and in a project to develop a model education bill for the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States. He also advised the Canadian Regulators Group, an association concerned with the regulation of the Canadian real estate industry.

With his wife, Joan, Bill Foster was a pillar of their church and community. They worked closely in organizing events, fundraisers, and various activities to assist those in need. Estimates vary as to whether he personally knew one-half or more of the residents of Montreal West.

The Faculty of Law extends its deepest condolences to Joan; to his children Mark, Anna, Sarah, and Rebecca; and to his grandchildren. We also express condolences to the many others – lawyers, academics, judges, friends, citizens – who knew and loved Bill Foster, as we did.

Those wishing to leave their tributes or condolences to his family can sign our guest book.

Joan Foster and their children have graciously suggested directing donations in Bill’s memory to the Faculty of Law:

Robert Leckey
Dean and Samuel Gale Professor of Law
16 August 2021

Upon Professor Foster's retirement in 2011, the Nahum Gelber Law Library traditionally marked the occasion by restoring one of its old books in his name. The title selected was Parish law: or, A guide to justices of the peace, ministers, churchwardens, overseers of the poor, constables, surveyors of the highways, vestry-clerks, and all others concern'd in parish business (1755).

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