Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 1, 2006
Madam Justice Cecilia Johnstone dead at 54
Madam Justice Cecilia Johnstone
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Madam Justice Cecilia Johnstone, a committed lay Catholic leader and a strong proponent of women's rights, died of cervical cancer in University Hospital April 18. She was 54.
A former chair of the board of the Western Catholic Reporter and chancellor of Newman Theological College, Johnstone spent much of her legal career fighting for women's rights in a male-dominated profession. She did the same in the Church, where she advocated for women's ordination and equality for women on all fronts.
When Johnstone became provincial general of the Friars in 1993, she made history as the first woman to hold such a post in the 33-year history of this organization that raises funds for the post-graduate education of priests and to pay operating costs of Newman College and St. Joseph's Seminary.
"I think it's long overdue that we have women involved and I am delighted that that has happened," she said following her appointment.
Her stint with the Friars was just one of many incursions in traditional male territory. In 1990, she became the first female president of the Canadian Bar Association's Alberta Branch. Later that year she became the CBA's national president, a post that has been held by only two women.
"Up until now the Canadian bar has been very much an old boy's network," she noted at the time.
During her tenure, Johnstone fought hard to implement recommendations urging equal treatment for lawyers, mostly women, who take time off work to look after a family.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Johnstone attended St. James elementary and St. Mary's - now J.H. Picard - high school.
"My Catholic education had a profound effect on me," she told the WCR. "I was raised and educated in a fairly strong, disciplined environment. Many of my teachers were Ursuline Sisters."
Over the years Johnstone established a close relationship with Archbishop Joseph MacNeil and Father Mike McCaffery, both of whom she credited with opening doors to her.
Johnstone was installed in 1996 as the first female chancellor of the college, serving in the position until last August.
"As a lawyer and in the community, I felt very strongly that women should take an active role in all facets of life, including the Church," she said.
Johnstone graduated from the University of Alberta's faculty of law in 1974 and was admitted to the bar in 1975. She practised in the area of wills and estates until her appointment to the Court of Queen's Bench in 1996.
"She was an outstanding judge who believed in equality before the law," said Alberta Court of Queen Bench Chief Justice Allan Wachowich. "She felt very strongly about the fact that she had to do a good job; she had to be an example for other women, she had to be true to herself. If there is anything about her is that she was true to herself."
Wachowich described Johnstone as a woman of faith who acknowledged and embraced her faith publicly. "Although on occasion she had disagreements with the (Church's) hierarchy as to the role of women within the Church, she fought from within and never fought from outside to express her views."
McCaffery, who journeyed with Johnstone through her illness and was at her bedside when she died, also recalled his good friend with fondness.
"I guess I'll remember her as very feisty, very alive, very much involved in everything she did," the priest said. "She wasn't afraid to get involved and get her hands dirty and wasn't afraid to say things that would be challenging and confrontational. If she thought it was right, she would say it."
A member of St. Joseph's Basilica Parish, Johnstone was a devout Catholic who took her faith seriously, McCaffery noted. "Her faith was always very important to her. She didn't flaunt it but she didn't hide it either."
She also took her friendships seriously. In September 2003, Johnstone had a lead role in organizing a roast in honour of McCaffery, following his retirement. The event sold 1,600 tickets at $250 a piece, double what was originally anticipated. The proceeds went to Newman College to create an endowment chair in McCaffery's honour.
"She was a really good friend, very loyal. She and her husband were very generous to me," the priest said.
MacNeil, who also enjoyed a long friendship with Johnstone, said he appreciates the leadership Johnstone gave in the Thomas More Lawyers' Guild organizing the Red Mass and at Newman College.
"She helped to stabilize the college's financial security. And I always found her to be a very, very personable lady, very much involved with the legal profession and the Church."
An avid long-distance runner, Johnstone ran the 100th running of the Boston Marathon in 1996. She also loved reading and was a fan of country and western music.
Among others, Johnstone leaves behind her mother, Anne, and her husband John Day, an Edmonton lawyer and developer. A Mass of Christian Burial was held April 22 at St. Joseph's Basilica.