John W. Durnford (1929–2017)


Three photos of John Durnford over the years

We share here messages, thoughts and memories of our dear friend, Professor Emeritus John W. Durnford, who passed Thursday, 30 November 2017, at the age of 88. We also share the heartfelt eulogy [.doc] that the Hon. Nicholas Kasirer gave at the funeral on December 12, 2017. If you'd like to add your contribution to this page, lysanne.larose [at] (subject: Souvenir%20John%20Durnford) (email Lysanne Larose).

I was just a B.Comm student when I read Professor Durnford's series in the McGill Law Journal on piercing the corporate veil (mid to late '80's). They told me an awful lot. Professor Durnford and I would happen to meet each other in traffic and he always seemed to acknowledge me as a law student, even though I wasn't; perhaps he had seen me in the Chancellor Day Hall Library so often. McGill, and the World, has lost a fantastic Gentleman.

Mr. Lyndon Maither, CFE

"Professor Dunford was brilliant, but not just in the "black letter" sense. He was able to make tax both interesting and fun - no mean feat. He was a great teacher and a true mentor. When I think of my time at McGill, his classes always bring a smile to my face. We were lucky to have him in our lives."

Mr. David Mesman, BCL'94, LLB'93

"As one of his many fortunate law students, what impressed me most about Professor Durnford was the way he carried himself as a person—always dignified and warm. This had a significant impact on me as the study of law was one thing which was very intense and competitive, but becoming a lawyer I sensed was very different. Professor Durnford always acted as a very caring and decent person to everyone despite his position and intellect, which afforded him the opportunity to act very differently. My deepest condolences to his family as well as a deep acknowledgement for all that Professor Durnford contributed in helping create such an amazing law school that has impacted so many people directly and indirectly."

Mr. Mark Godsy, LLB'82

"Professor John Durnford not only brought tax law to life, but was an inspiration to all students with his energy, sense of humour and commitment to making McGill Law into an institution of national and international significance."

- Mr. Paul Moen, LLB'93

"John Durnford will always hold a special place in my heart and had a singular and lasting impact on my life and career.

It was John who recruited me from Osgoode Hall Law School where I was teaching from 1970-1972, with the inimitable challenge, “you critiqued McGill legal education as a student, why not come back and participate in its refinement as a professor.” I happily responded to the warmth and generosity of his invitation, and could not have had a better Dean - who built a wonderful collegial Faculty - than John Durnford. He was a superb teacher, an expert yet highly modest scholar, and the best of friends to colleagues.

It is only fitting that the best teaching award - and a classroom - were named in his honour, and now preserved in his memory. He will be sorely missed by all who had the privilege of knowing him as student, colleague, friend, and role model as educator. Warmest condolences to the family."

- The Hon. Irwin Cotler, OC, QC, BCL'64, Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Law, McGill University

"Others have eloquently recounted Professor Durnford's many qualities. I remember him clearly through their comments. I particularly appreciated his humility, candor and warmth. To a young law student in the late 70's he was not in the least bit pretentious, and did not take himself or the profession we were embarking in too seriously. This was a very rare thing. He was a wonderful man, and I will miss him. All my condolences to his family, particularly Evelyn, Jessie, Diana, who I remember well. I am very sorry to have missed the funeral."

- Mr. Ted (Edward) Claxton, BCL' 82

"Very sad. He was a great professor and a great man. Respectfully,"

- Mr. Doug Pryde, BCL'63

"Speaking today at John Durndord's memorial service, another Dean, Nicholas Kasirer, spoke eloquently of John's contribution to collegiality within the Faculty of Law. As a student, colleague and friend in retirement, I can attest to the truth of Nicholas' comments. Becoming Dean at a relatively troubled time after the dynamic Scott and Cohen years, John made it his business to bring colleagues together in a spirit of mutual respect of differences of culture, language, legal philosophy and professional aspirations. As Dean and through the subsequent years, John led by example showing us all that differences were a source of strength to us all. His example did much to facilitate the complex and sometimes wrenching decisions that were taken to build the transsystemic programme that make the Faculty the remarkable place of learning that it is today. We all owe him a debt of gratitude."

- Professor Armand de Mestral, BCL'66, Faculty of Law, McGill University

"It was a privilege to have been his student. I will always remember his wonderful sense of humour and warm smile. Imagine a man who could make tax law not simply understandable, but fun! Deepest condolences to the family."

- Mr. Robert Valdmanis, LLB'94

"A superb teacher and a wonderful man. The stuff he taught me remained with me. His flamboyance in class was a welcome respite in those dark winter days. He was a great classroom performer and we appreciated the effort. Rest in peace, John."

- Mr. C. J. Michael Flavel, QC, BCL'64

"I am so sorry to learn of Professor Durnford's passing. Although I did not take any of his classes, I remember him as a gentle and well-respected teacher. My condolences to his family and to the Faculty."

- Professor Myra Tawfik, BCL'85, LLB '85, Faculty of Law, University of Windsor

"Against all odds, he made me love my taxation classes! He was truly a great professor. My sincere condolences to his family."

- Mme Léna Taylor, BCL'95, LLB'95

"Dean Durnford’s humility and understated commitment to the integrity of legal education was best demonstrated to me by his crucial role in the establishment of legal aid in Quebec. There has probably never been anything published about his private efforts to convince the both the Montreal Bar and the Quebec Bar that law students should be permitted to offer services under the supervision of volunteer members of the Montreal Bar. In the first legal aid clinic in Pointe-St-Charles in 1970, the clinic’s director was Robert (Bob) Cooper, a recent McGill Law faculty graduate. Most of the work would be done by the law students. When the establishment of this clinic became known to the Bar, the Bar threatened that the students would be guilty of illegally practicing law. Dean Durnford had a private meeting with Philip F. Vineberg, then Bâtonnier of the Bar of Montreal, in 1969 to discuss the matter.

Many years later, I had the pleasant experience of meeting Dean Durnford at a social event and we discussed this incident. Dean Durnford told me the story of that meeting. He said that after listening patiently to Mr. Vineberg’s threats, he calmly responded by saying: “Well then, I guess you will have to arrest them all, and McGill will have to defend them.”

I was one of the students at the clinic, and it served as the model for the first Legal Aid Act. Had it not been for Dean Durnford’s efforts, I do not believe that Bob Cooper could have operated the clinic. With this experience, Bob later served as the executive assistant of the Quebec Minister of Justice, Jérôme Choquette, where he was instrumental in drafting of the legal aid legislation which still serves as the framework for legal aid in this province. From my perspective, this is probably Dean Durnford’s greatest legacy for which he has never received any recognition.

Today, despite its inadequacies, the Quebec legal aid system still offers needy citizens some access to justice as a right. Prior to this, the only legal services for the indigent in Montreal were the limited services offered through the Bar of Montreal pro bono services dispensed on a discretionary basis by the larger law firms."

- Mr. Leonard Seidman, BCL'72

"John Durnford was a great Professor; equal parts dignified, humble, and scholarly. It was a privilege to have had him as a teacher."

- Mr. Jon Festinger, Q.C., BCL'80, LLB'80

"I have been following with much sadness the news concerning Prof Durnford. I think that our Class of '62 was the first class to have him as professor. At that time in his career, he was teaching Civil Law courses.

I remember him as a quiet, serene and loving professor. His kindness and care for students were quite extraordinary. Over the years, I maintained a simple and personal relationship with him, he would stop into my office to chat with me every time he visited the Faculty.

I regret that I will not be able to attend the funeral, but I wish to convey my deep feelings to my colleagues and to the Durnford family."

- Professor Robert Godin, BCL'62, Faculty of Law, McGill University

"J’ai commencé à enseigner à la Faculté de droit durant le décanat de John Durnford. Dès mon arrivée, il fit en sorte que je me sente accueillie. Une fois libéré de ses responsabilités de doyen, il continua son habitude de passer régulièrement voir ses collègues dans leurs bureaux et d’écouter leurs projets, leurs opinions, leurs plaintes. Il savait merveilleusement écouter et son influence a énormément contribué à faire de la faculté un lieu paisible où régnaient la bonne entente et le plaisir au travail.

Lorsque j’ai commencé à enseigner le droit fiscal, il est venu chaque semaine m’expliquer les points difficiles du cours, les arrêts clés, les pièges des circulaires de Revenu Canada ou Revenu Québec. Je ne lui avais rien demandé. Il ne m’a rien imposé. Il dispensait ses conseils avec humour et gentillesse, sous prétexte de conversations amicales. Il fut pour moi un collègue charmant, un ami et, finalement, le plus discret des mentors."

- Mme Ethel Groffier, BCL'72, chercheure émérite, Centre Paul-André Crépeau de droit privé et comparé

"Only a man as brilliant and singularly devoted to the teaching of law as Professor Durnford could make tax law both interesting and engaging. He was a kind man with a pure soul who was committed to helping his students excel. His kind demeanor was manifested in his unique style of instruction and through his unmistakable voice.

My family and I offer our sincere condolences to the Durnford family and will include you and your family our late teacher in our prayers."

- Mr. Abdul WM Souraya, LLB'89

"JWD was the Dean who hired me (45 years ago!). He was very kind to me as a junior colleague, a source of considerable encouragement not only in being the very best possible teacher, but also in writing, trying to make sense of things. I am pleased to know that the teaching award at the Faculty is named after him. He made a very significant contribution to the institution and to countless students.

When he took up tax law after the deanship, we spent many hours together trying to make sense of the Income Tax Act for our respective classes. Even after I left McGill, he kept in touch, and was always pleased to receive news of me and copies of anything I’d written.

On a personal level, I also have had several occasions to remember his explanation when he declined an appointment to the court, pointing out the advantages and challenges of being an academic compared to a judge. He made a big impact on my early professional life, an impact that has continued to this day. We have lost a friend and someone we respected."

- Mr. David Phillip Jones, Q.C.

"My deepest sympathies to all of the members of the Durnford family. Please know that Professor Durnford has left indelible memories on generations of law students. His teaching style was enlightening and punctuated with humour, as so aptly demonstrated by his technique for explaining the concept of "piercing the corporate veil". He would pantomime the act of someone surreptitiously lifting a cloth to take a peek at what was behind it. The image was worth a thousand words and immediately conveyed the legal concept.

Long before it was "fashionable", Professor Durnford was an avid environmentalist, cycling up Peel Street in his suit and tie. He also played an instrumental role in ensuring that his family's Laurentian property would be developed in a sustainable fashion long before the advent of environmental legislation.

His kindness and generosity with students are legendary. He was both a gentleman and "gentle" man at all times. All those with whom he interacted are better persons because of it. He will be missed by all."

- Ms. Christine Carron, BCL '77

"De loin un des grands professeurs que j'ai eu le plaisir d'avoir, ainsi que d'une éthique exemplaire, tout en ayant un grand sens de l'humour!!! Je répète cette expression du prof Durnford depuis mon cours de fiscalité : Logic is Law unless the Legislature says otherwise!"
- Me Pierre Setlakwe, BCL'86, LLB'86

"I will always remember Dean Durnford - always a mixture of great elegance - overarching curiosity - and an enormous respect for innovation and learning. He was a giant - a humble and loving one, but a great spirit among us. We will never forget his smile and sudden laughter for and with us. What a great soul. God bless him and his family at this time!"

- Mr. Fred Braman, BCL'75

"Tax Law was one of my favourite classes because Professor Durnford demystified the complex tax act by focusing on the essential principles and the logic behind them. I have applied his methodology in my work and in my teaching; I just wish I had conveyed that to him! My sympathies to his family... always will be remembered for his wit and good nature!"

- Unsigned

"Professor Durnford was an elegant and unassuming man of another time and place, a beloved 'Mr. Chips.'

He was my supervisor in my third and fourth years when I was one of the student instructors of the legal writing and research methodology course. He took me to lunch at the University Club at the beginning and end of each year, a formal affair and a special treat, to offer tips, encouragement and thanks. Professor Durnford took care of me as he would a daughter but treated me with the respect of a colleague and collaborator. It is an enduring memory for me. Goodbye dear Professor Durnford. 'I shall not look upon his like again.' -Hamlet"

- Ms. Ann Soden, Ad.E. BCL'81 LLB'82

"Professor Durnford had the unique ability to command the attention of the room without saying a word. He would wait patiently for complete silence in the classroom and then begin to deliver his message. Apart from his lectures in tax law he embodied a quiet respect, civility and captured the essence of good in humanity. My condolences to his family."

- Mr. Ciro Cucciniello, BCL'84, LLB'86

"John Durnford was such a special teacher. He stood above it all - could make fun of what perhaps many would otherwise have found a dry topic. And with such great humour too. I will never forget the document he produced when he said that the Canadian tax code was one of the most challenging codes to understand. It was a document that took the first words of the bible "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" and then showed what it would have looked like if the Canadian tax code writers would have written it (at least 2 pages!). It was a privilege to have had him as a teacher. He left a lasting legacy. He was much loved and really inspired many of us. My condolences to his family."

- Ms. Maaike de Bie, BCL'93, LLB'93

"I was saddened to learn of the passing of John Durnford. He will be missed by all who were fortunate enough to have crossed paths with him, not only as his students (as I was) but in any capacity. My condolences to his family."

- Mr. Josef J. Fridman, BCL'70, DCL'05

"Nous admirions sa manière attentive et respectueuse autant que son intellect. Je suis reconnaissante pour son leadership. Sincères sympathies à tous ses proches."

- Ms. Marguerite Bourgeois, BCL'73

"Without reservation, the best experience in my academic career resulted when I worked on a paper for Professor Durnford. He was by far a person who was supportive, encouraging, patient... He made a positive difference in my life and, I am certain, he did the same for all those he met. He has passed from our world but he will live on through the wonderful memories he left behind. My condolences to his family."

- Ms. Vonnie Rochester, BCL'85, LLB'85

"John Durnford inspired confidence in his students. His enthusiasm, sense of humour and energy were infectious! What a clear thinker too; he made the complex simple and I feel lucky to have been in his class. I imagine Professor Durnford speeding along on his bicycle somewhere in the heavens..."

- M. Craig Shepherd, LLB '96

"Condolences to Professor Durnford's family and gratitude for his contribution to Law and the teaching of Law."

- Mr. Roman (Raymond) Gordy, BCL'67

"Professor Durnford was a kindly presence at McGill Law School. His cheerful demeanour and sprightly cycling attire always made me smile, as did his explanation for leaving big firm private practice: 'it didn't agree with his stomach.'"

- Ms. Katia Opalka, BCL'97, LLB'97

"I did my Master's work at McGill's Faculty of Law during the last two years of John's Deanship. He had confidence in me, made me feel welcome in the Montreal community as a newcomer from abroad, and encouraged me to begin teaching at McGill, which I did as a young Assistant Professor in 1976. John on teaching: "every year you cover less material, but transmit more knowledge." My condolences to his wife and daughters whom I had the privilege to meet in what is now the distant past."

- Dr. Peter Haanappel, LLM'74, DCL'1976

"Anyone who went to McGill Law School while Professor Durnford taught there has to rank him as one of their favourite teachers. I don't think anyone else could make Intro to Tax Law nor Corporate Tax Law an enjoyable experience for students. I will always remember that endearing sense of humor, the ability to make the most complex legal material seem simple and to make you laugh no matter how early the class or how stressed out you were. Oh, and that famous bicycle... My condolences to his entire family, he will be missed by all."

- Mr. Edsel Mourillon, BCL'93, LLB'93

"En 1972, le doyen Durnford, selon son habitude, invita les présidents de classe à déjeuner au Faculty Club. J’y représentais BCL 1. Tout de suite le doyen s’excusa auprès de moi qu’au Club, « …tout était cuit à mort… »

« Chez mes grand-parents aussi, monsieur le Doyen, ai-je répondu, y compris le roast beef, alors qu’ici, il est délicieux! »

Autre anecdote savoureuse: convoqué à son bureau, j’attendais mon tour quand sortit D.P., aux origines parfaitement anglaises. « My God, the Dean must be in very dire straits indeed! - Mais pourquoi donc? - Well, the Saint Andrew’s Ball is approaching and he is looking for proper dates for his daughters. The Scottish element here is very scant. He is down to considering an Englishman and a French-Canadian! » Nous avons beaucoup ri. Mais le bal n’avait rien à voir avec ma convocation, il s’agissait plutôt d’une affaire de routine.

Dix ans plus tard, je revis le doyen Durnford chez Martineau Walker où j’exerçais ma profession. Il se souvenait très bien de moi. Il était venu assister à une réunion des administrateurs du domaine de Valdurn, fondé dès 1871 dans les Laurentides par un de ses ancêtres qui retrouvait sans doute là un peu de la noble Écosse.

J’ai manqué par ma faute la belle réception qu’il donna aux diplômés de 1975 à sa maison de l’avenue Lexington. J’espère ne pas manquer ses funérailles. Un parfait gentilhomme, pardon, gentleman, nous a quitté."

- M. Alain Contant, BCL'75

"Professor Durnford made the study of tax law a fun and simple subject to understand. He always smiled and made you feel so at ease. My sympathies to his family."

- Mr. Marvin Shahin, BCL'91, LLB'91

"I was so saddened to hear of the passing of my favorite McGill professor. John Durnford was both a fine teacher and human being, and he will be very much missed by the McGill community. I feel very lucky to have studied under him and to have known him. My sincerest sympathies to his family and other friends."

- Ms. Jill McCutcheon (Samis), BCL'87, LLB'87

"I remember Dean Durnford for one specific event. As an undergraduate, and hoping to get into law school, but looking for work, I was hired to serve as a waiter at a reception that Dean Durnford was giving during a "Learned Society Event" at his home in Westmount. I did not appear appropriately attired, but Dean Durnford quickly found the right shirt for me to wear and I served the champagne and strawberries impeccably. Quite the memory. The next year I was accepted into the Faculty of Law and went on to graduate. Dean Durnford never knew of the connection. I did. Such are our memories. He was in all respects a truly fine person. He will be missed."

- Mr. Walter Kuplowsky, LLB'75

"Sorry to hear the news. I very much enjoyed his class on taxation. He was able to animate what would otherwise have been a fairly dry topic. My condolences to his family and friends."

- Mr. David Goetz, BCL'92, LLB'92

"I remember him well as my first Professor of Civil Property Law. He was an excellent instructor and seemed a kind and gentle man. My sympathies to his family and friends."

Mrs. Theresa Le Blanc-Bridge, BCL'80, LLB'80

"My sincerest condolences to Prof. Durnford's family and Friends. I remember his soothing demeanor, humor and kindness. May he RIP."

- Ms. Anne Farray, Past Student Affairs Employee, Faculty of Law, McGill University

"The news of John's passing brought mixed feelings: sadness at the loss of a remarkable man, and gratitude for the privilege of having known him as a colleague and a friend. When I was Provost, John served McGill as Chairman of the tenure committee. In that role, he dealt with difficult and sensitive situations with tact and wisdom. John was a rare combination of intellect, integrity, kindness and respect toward all."

- Dr. Samuel O. Freedman, Dean of Medicine (1977-1981), Vice-Principal, Academic (1981-1991), McGill University,

"De tout temps, John a démontré un appui indéfectible aux  bibliothèques. J’ai fait sa connaissance à l’époque où il siégeait à un Comité de la CRÉPUQ dévoué au développement des ressources documentaires dans les bibliothèques universitaires du Québec, où John apportait une expertise unique et appréciée de tous. John Durnford a toujours participé à la communauté juridique du Québec, notamment par sa présence soutenue à l’APDQ. Sa dernière apparition à la rencontre annuelle de l’APDQ s’est tenue au moment où il a rendu un émouvant hommage au doyen de la Faculté de droit de l’Université de Sherbrooke, Jean Melançon, qui partait aussi à la retraite, avec qui il avait siégé à la Conférence des doyens de droit du Québec pendant de nombreuses années. Évidemment, il faut rappeler que John Durnford a été un des bâtisseurs de notre bibliothèque Nahum Gelber, dont il est demeuré un usager fidèle et assidu jusqu’à la fin. Il sera regretté de tous."

- Me Daniel Boyer, Bibliothécaire en chef, Bibliothèque de droit Nahum Gelber, Université McGill

"Professor Durnford was not only a brilliant jurist, but also a good professor and a kind individual. He genuinely liked his students. His presence in the Faculty and on his bike through the streets of Montreal will be missed. My sympathies to his family."

- Ms. Rachel Cohen, BCL 78, LLB 79

"In my last year at McGill Law, I had the distinct privilege of studying International Taxation under the good professor. To my mind, John Durnford was the wonderfully classic, gentlemanly, traditional, old school professor; deeply knowledgeable, calm and respectful.

I have fond memories of walking to and from Chancellor Day Hall along Dr. Penfield and regularly seeing Professor Durnford, duly helmeted, riding by on his bicycle, which was fully equipped with horns, bells, lights and saddlebags. How fortunate has been the McGill community to have had such a great and dedicated man serve the Faculty of Law. R.I.P. Professor Durnford."

- Mr. James Douglas Hall, BCL'78

"An exceptional GENTLEMAN in the true sense. 'Call me John' were his first words to me when I joined the Faculty as Director of the Institute of Air and Space Law in 1989. With profound humility, he was always ready to offer guidance and encouragement. Requiescat in pace!"

- Dr Michael Milde, Institute of Air and Space Law, , McGill University

"I was John’s student and have always felt the justice of the teaching award being in his name. He took me under his wing as a young colleague, inviting me out for lunch on a number of occasions and always paying attention to my happiness and how my family was doing. Even more recently after his retirement, when he would come around the faculty, he took the trouble to duck into my office and brought a source of smiles and warmth. The iconic image of John is of course his beaming face atop a bicycle driving somewhere to or from the faculty. He was energy and grace."

- Professor Richard Janda, BCL'85, LLB'85, , Faculty of Law, McGill University

 "I completed two classes taught at McGill Law, Corporations and Tax. He was a fine professor, learned in the law and respectful to everyone. I am honored to have been one of his students."

- Mr. Eric Hutton, BCL'83, LLB'84

"John Durnford’s office, post Deanship, was situated on the third floor of Old Chancellor Day Hall: a large corner office, currently occupied by our colleague Geneviève Saumier, which conveyed both seniority and seriousness. For a young Boulton Fellow, assigned a tiny office down the hall in the old servants’ quarters of the building, Professor Durnford’s office and stature seemed fairly intimidating. But John came to find me on my first day and welcomed me with real warmth and enthusiasm. I was new to the Faculty, to McGill, and to Montreal – and John Durnford helped me understand, and find my way to meaningful membership in, all three. He immediately invited me to lunch at the University Club, something he did for all arrivals and, on a regular basis, for his younger colleagues. And he never failed to come by to wish me a good day every single morning. For someone who had a big, beautiful office, John made a point of getting out of his space and doing the rounds.

John Durnford had a genuine interest in how the people around him were doing – not so much in what they were accomplishing, but whether they were thriving. He introduced me to crucial characteristics of what was clearly a very precious place for him: willingness to converse in English and French (even if your accent gave away the age at which you had learned a language), openness to the ideas and experience of others (even if not always easy to grasp), and commitment to community well-being (even when time and energy feel like they are far from in abundance). Most of all, John modeled kindness and compassion, combined with dedication and vision. He told stories of the past – whether of his childhood or his time as Dean – in a way that taught those around him, particularly those much younger than he was, valuable lessons about how to look after people and institutions.

It’s 24 years since I was a Boulton Fellow - supported and made to feel like I belonged, by John Durnford along with my other third floor OCDH neighbours Jane Glenn and Bill Foster. As I learn of John’s passing, I remember him coming by day in, day out to say hello with his cheerful smile. And I’m reminded of the incredible impact of intergenerational support, of the importance of making time for each other, and of the lovely legacy left to all of us at the Faculty by John Durnford."

- Professor Shauna Van Praagh, Faculty of Law, McGill University

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