JUSTICE GEORGE STEPHEN GAGE – A HAMILTON TREASURE

By Peter Boushy and John Loukidelis

On April 28, 2021 Justice George Stephen Gage celebrated his 70th birthday.   And on this day his Honour also graciously agreed to be interviewed by the HLA History Committee, a mere two days before his official retirement as a full-time judge in the Ontario Court of Justice.

The zoom interview was recorded and will have been uploaded to the HLA website by the time of printing. John Loukedilis  (current chair and founder of the HLA History Committee) and  I would urge you to view the 1 hour interview to really get a sense of the man, George Stephen Gage.

Justice Gage’s family background comprises a wonderful part of Canadian history, and in particular, Hamilton history.  For those of us who live in Hamilton, we’re familiar with the scenic Gage Park, or have driven not a few times on Gage or Upper Gage Avenue; but it is our hope that this article, along with the video interview, will provide you with a deep sense of Justice Gage’s wisdom, humanity and selfless giving to his community.

The Gage family and George Gage himself, are, without a doubt, a Hamilton treasure.

Let’s begin:

For the first four years of his life, George lived at the ancestral home at 1875 King Street East, Hamilton, before moving to a home his father bought from his father-in-law, on Inglewood Drive. George attended Central Public School, Ryerson, Westdale and HCI before travelling the QEW to Victoria College at the University of Toronto where he received a degree in English and History. He attended Queen’s law school, from which he graduated in 1977 (after having taken time to travel in Europe between second and third year).

The young George Gage was called to the bar in 1979, and started practicing criminal and civil law in the firm Bowlby, Luchak, Thoman, Lofchik and Soule. In our interview, George noted that the Tony Musitano case was a big part of his early legal training, and that being John Bowlby’s junior on the high profile trial was an invaluable experience. The case involved a series of bombings of bakeries and businesses in Hamilton. While there were three other co-accused, including Doug ‘Fingers’ Cummings, Les Lethbridge, and Ellizabeth Wala aka Mona Ruff,  the  bombing trial centred on Tony Musitano.  George worked with Mr. John  Bowlby for the entirety of the   case from 1979 to 1983, both at the preliminary hearing and trial. Musitano was convicted and sent to the Big House. The case was so notorious that in 1988, Hamilton city council, with the support of the then Chief of Police, Ken Robertson, passed a resolution that called for parole to be denied to Tony Musitano, and that he never be allowed back into the city of Hamilton! While it is doubtful that this would pass constitutional muster, it is a true part of our Hamilton history.

George would become partner in 1984 and later practiced civil, criminal and matrimonial litigation in 1989 with J. Douglas Thoman, Q.C., John A. Soule, and S. Stuart Aird – all highly respected men in their profession. That same year, George worked as a part-time Assistant Crown Attorney in Hamilton, and after numerous applications (his words, not ours!) was appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice in November, 2003.

The Gage family has been in the city of Hamilton for quite some time, since the 1780s, when they came here from New York as exiles from the American Revolution; eventually settling in the East End.  His great grandfather, Cameron Calvin Gage, was a farmer who sold his wares at the Hamilton market.

Both George’s grandfather, George Cameron Gage, and his father, Cameron Gage, were lawyers in Hamilton; both having also bravely served in our two world wars - his grandfather as an airman in WWI, and his father as a navigator in the Bomber Command of the RCAF in WWII.

George’s grandfather was instrumental in the founding of the first Hamilton Law Association Students Society in 1914 (other members of this student society included C.W. Reid Bowlby, the father of George’s principal and mentor, John – see photos of C.W. Reid Bowlby and George Cameron Gage attached) and practiced law in Hamilton until his passing in 1974. George’s father,  Cameron, practiced with his father in a general practice starting in 1949, was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1960 and around this time worked as a federal prosecutor, prosecuting many a high profile cases, including one involving the late G. Arthur Martin as defence counsel. Both Cameron and his father served as public school trustees for Ward 4. In the mid-sixties, George’s father was also appointed a family court judge pro-tempore and presided at the old family courthouse at Tisdale and Main. George’s father would eventually join the Crown’s office in Hamilton, and become acting chief crown attorney for a few years, just prior to the arrival of John Takach (who himself was later appointed a judge in the Ontario Court of Justice). Cameron Gage retired in 1987.

      

George’s mother’s family were originally East Coasters, hailing from the great province of Nova Scotia. George’s maternal grandfather, Douglas H. Stevens, arrived in Ontario from Halifax in the mid-1920s, having served in WWI as a medic in the trenches. After the first world war, the industrious Douglas Stevens eventually rose to be president of the Hoover Vacuum Company. Douglas’ daughter, Jeane Isobel Stevens, would later marry Cameron Gage and give birth to George, as she recalls, on a beautiful sunny spring day at the Nora Francis Henderson Hospital in 1951.  George’s mother was also dedicated to public service and contributed to the restoration of Battlefield House and Dundurn Castle, and headed up the restoration of Whitehern Historic House and Garden.  Jeane Gage, who is still living and full of pep, actually hosted the opening ceremony at Whitehern with the then Governor General Roland Michener in the early 1970s.

George is the proud father of 5 children, and has been blessed with two grandchildren.

Additionally, he was, and still is, an accomplished rower. In fact, George was part of the winning crews in open events at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta in 1974, 1991, and 1996. And among George’s many acts of public service, back in the 1980s he started assisting in the development and implementation of a recreational rowing program at the Leander Boat Club located at the foot of Bay Street. He has been on the executive of the Club continuously since 1983; he was the rowing captain for an unbelievable  25 years;  and was, and is currently again, Vice-President of the club. George served as President of Leander from 2008 to 2013.  With this kind of commitment, it is no wonder that George was the perfect fit to be a representative for the sport of rowing on the Bid Committee for the Hamilton/Brantford 2001 Canada Games bid.

However, notwithstanding the sports and legal accomplishments of George and his family, and notwithstanding the famous Canadian pedigree and the great acts of public service by George and his family, when you actually meet George, and get to know George, you are left with a deep sense that this is a man that embodies, indeed, exemplifies, true solid Canadian values – honesty, empathy, selflessness, a strong work ethic, and fairness.

In the hallways of Westdale Secondary School (George’s alma mater from grades 9 to 12), the school’s hall/wall of fame includes George Gage, along with such Canadian luminaries as Russ Jackson, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and our very own Justice Jim Turnbull.  Along with George’s picture on the wall of fame, you’ll read his words of wisdom adopted from author Kurt Vonnegut, which are, ‘Peculiar Travel Suggestions are Dancing Lessons from God.’ And as George explains in our zoom interview, based on his own life experiences - which he reviews in the video interview – some of our truly memorable experiences in life come about because of an open heart, and an open mind, to what might come our way by way of ‘travel suggestions’ or perhaps even unexpected invites that, at first blush, may seem to be out of our comfort zones, but turn out to be rich human experiences because we bravely chose to live in the moment.  

Towards the end of our interview, John Loukedilis asked George if he could provide some wise advice for our new Hamilton lawyers. George made reference to John Irving’s novel, and screen adaptation, The Cider House Rules, where one of the main characters says to the protagonist Homer, “The important thing in life Homer, is to be of use.”  This importance of ‘being of use’ to our fellow man is a credo that George Gage holds dear to his heart.  But George goes further in the interview and fleshes out this purpose driven notion of ‘being of use’.  George refers us yet to another movie, The Year of Living Dangerously, where Linda Hunt plays photographer Billy Kwan, who is covering the simmering violence in Indonesia during the riots and eventual overthrow of President Sukarno (Hunt won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress). In the movie, Billy Kwan implores a young American journalist, played by Mel Gibson, that we must always ask ourselves, ‘What then must we do?’ Billy Kwan then notes that these words of wisdom are actually from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 3, Verse 10 in the New Testament.

Billy Kwan further adds, “I support the view that you just don’t think about the major issues. You do whatever you can about the misery that is right in front of you. You add your light to the sum of light.”  And in a similar vein, in our zoom interview with George, he shares this thought (at the 51:51minute mark): “The world is an imperfect place. There are problems to be surmounted. But instead of wringing our hands and bemoaning our condition, let us get to work and see what then must we do.”

At the very end of our interview, George highlights two cases that he is particularly proud of:  R. v. R.W., [2013] O.J. No. 1993, and R. v. S.B., [2020] O.J. No. 6028.  In the first case, Justice Gage ruled, after a voir dire on voluntariness, that the female accused’s statement must be excluded as she was actually threatened by the police that unless she cooperated with the authorities, her own child could be taken away from her. In the second case, Justice Gage, again after a voire dire, excluded a young person’s statement to the police after concluding that the young person was not given a reasonable opportunity to have an adult present during his interrogation, as afforded under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

These two cases clearly exemplify that Justice Gage means what he says, and says what he means, when speaking of the importance of ‘being of use’ with words and deeds in this broken world of ours. Like his father and paternal grandfather, both veterans of war, both lawyers; and like his mother, who headed up the restoration of Whitehern, George is truly a great Canadian. He will be sorely missed as a full-time judge in Hamilton, and both John and I were honoured to have George share his life’s precious moments and thoughts on our zoom interview. An interview that was recorded for, hopefully, a very fruitful posterity.

When George was first appointed a judge in 2003, he was first assigned to the Toronto West courthouse near Jane Street and Finch Avenue.

There is an article about the ‘Jane-Finch’ courthouse that the HLA History Committee came across in the Canadian general interest magazine, The Walrus.  It is written by a law student who at the time was involved in the Osgoode Hall Law School Intensive Program in Criminal Law. It was written by Matthew Olyenik, who later became a research lawyer for Legal Aid Ontario and the founder of rangefinder.ca, a superb sentencing program for criminal lawyers nation-wide. In his short piece, entitled ‘Courtroom Drama’, written in 2006, Matthew describes his experience observing for the first time the hustle and bustle of the Toronto West Courthouse at 2201 Finch Avenue West.

As Matthew meanders through the halls of Toronto West, and observes the real life drama inside the courtrooms, you’re reminded of the hustle and flow of courtroom scenes from Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Matthew is at first struck by the sheer mayhem at Toronto West but then, upon observing some of the judges’ interactions with the prisoners, notes, “I gradually begin to perceive a group of men and women struggling daily with the responsibility of making decisions of staggering importance about people they’ve never met.”

In his second month at the Toronto West Courthouse, Matthew comes across a case involving a person in custody who just pled guilty to breaching a court order to stay away from his domestic partner. He writes:

“He is an older man, unshaven and wearing the same clothes he was in when the police arrested him on the doorstep of what once was his home.

On the bench is Justice George Gage, a middle-aged man with an unhurried, detached manner. I had occasionally found myself in his court wondering if he were listening, only to have him direct a razor-sharp question at a witness or lawyer seconds later.

He listens to the Crown and the man’s defence lawyer argue over the proper punishment. Then he turns to the prisoner.

“Sir,” he says gently, looking directly at the man for the first time through the thick safety glass of the prisoner’s dock, “it’s time to let go.”

The man deflates. He closes his eyes and nods his head, raising his shackled hands to his face.

As the lawyers sit in silence, Justice Gage delivers his judgment directly to the guilty man, expressing sorrow over the breakdown of the man’s marriage, confident that he is capable of moving on with his own life, and the necessity of allowing his wife to do the same.

“Your lawyer tells me that your children still wish to have contact with you,” he says. “This is a positive thing. Do not mess that up.”

He tightens the conditions designed to keep the man away from his wife but encourages him to maintain contact with his children. He requires him to seek counselling so that he can begin to rebuild his life. Through the letter of the law, the gulf between the bench and the prisoner’s dock, and all the contrived formality of the Jane-Finch courthouse, Gage carefully creates a connection between two human beings. When he has finished, the sentence is less a punishment than a statement of empathy, of understanding, and of hope.”

Justice George Gage worked at the Toronto West Courthouse from the time he was appointed in 2003 to September 2007.  Following his Toronto West assignment, Justice Gage worked at probably the busiest courthouse in Canada, the A. Grenville and William Davis Courthouse in Brampton, from September 2008 to September 2015. It is only in the last six years of his Honour’s illustrious judicial career that we have had the privilege to have him preside at the Sopinka Courthouse, here, in his hometown of Hamilton!

Our Hamilton legal community will certainly be the lesser because of George’s retirement. While it is true, he will now do the occasional per diem work as a judge, his plan is to get involved in sentencing circles in Manitoulin; so chances are we won’t see much of George here at the Sopinka courthouse in the years to come.  George also intends to spend much more time traveling (pandemic restrictions permitting, of course), and just sharing his life with his grandchildren and loved ones, some of whom live in the beautiful province of Prince Edward Island.

George Stephen Gage, on behalf the HLA History Committee, John and myself wish you and your family a safe and happy retirement, with the added wish that many a ‘peculiar travel suggestions’ come your way!  You will be deeply missed by our Hamilton legal community. And in the spirit of St. Luke, author of those words of wisdom you referenced in The Year of Living Dangerously, may the Good Lord bless you and keep you, my friend. Truly, you are a Hamilton treasure!