O'Connor, Dennis

Degree conferred: Doctor of Laws (LL.D.)

Orator: Davies, Gwendolyn

ENCAENIA, MAY 30, 2013
to be Doctor of Laws

Dennis O'Connor has become widely-known to Canadians because of his role as Commissioner of two of the most soul-searching public inquiries in this country in the past twenty years.

The first of these inquiries was into the tainted water tragedy in Walkerton, Ontario, a town of 4800, where, in the spring of 2000, 7 people died and 2300 become ill from deadly bacteria in the community's drinking water. This was caused, as Justice O'Connor's inquiry uncovered, by a break-down in provincial and local regulatory procedures and regulatory ethics.

Justice O'Connor's second major commission was initiated in 2004 to delve "into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar," the Syrian-born Canadian engineer illegally detained in the United States and deported to imprisonment and torture in Syria on grounds of suspected terrorist connections. The recommendations of the O'Connor Inquiry, first issued in 2006, publicly cleared Arar of terrorism allegations, indicated the potential culpability of Canadian officials in his being deported by the Americans to Syria, and argued that "Openness and transparency" must be "hallmarks of legal proceedings in our system of justice." "In any constitutional climate," Commissioner O'Connor quoted, "the administration of justice thrives on exposure to light - and withers under a cloud of secrecy."

Dennis O'Connor's reports in the Walkerton and Arar inquiries have been called "a testament" to his "wisdom, judgment, service to the community, and courage." Indeed, it has been argued that Dennis O'Connor "developed a procedure to achieve fairness and maximum public disclosure during the Arar inquiry which has since been put forward as the constitutional standard for other judicial hearings into national security matters." Such commitment to integrity, The Guelph Mercury has added, has "helped improve government accountability in Ontario, Canada and internationally". And, reinforcing that sentiment, the Advocates' Society has recently awarded the Honourable Dennis O'Connor its highest accolade, a medal recognizing not only his "pre-eminence as counsel" and as an "unequivocal" "leader" of the bar, but also as one who has made a significant contribution "to the well-being of the community at large."

Dennis O'Connor began his legal career after graduating from Osgood Hall Law School in 1964, first practising with his father, and then, for three years, serving as a Magistrate in the Yukon, Deputy Magistrate of the Northwest Territories, and a Provincial Court judge in northern British Columbia. From 1976-1980, he taught law at the University of Western Ontario, joining the Toronto law firm Borden, Elliot in 1980 focusing on commercial and public law litigation. For the next eighteen years, while at Borden, Elliott, he also became a part-time faculty member at Osgoode Hall Law School (1982-86), the chief negotiator for the Government of Canada for the Yukon Indian Land Claim (1980-84), and an elected Bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada (1987-95). In 1998 he was appointed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario, becoming Associate Chief Justice of Ontario in 2001.

In the next eleven years, Justice O'Connor not only led both the Walkerton and Arar inquiries but also served as Chair of the Judicial Independence Committee and the Priorities and Planning Committee of the Canadian Judicial Council. While continuing to serve as Associate Chief Justice of Ontario, he also sat as a Deputy Supreme Court Judge in the Yukon Territory. In 2012, he resigned from the bench, re-joining his former Toronto firm, now Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, as counsel.

Dennis O'Connor has received many honours over the span of his career, ranging from being inducted into the Beaver Clan of the Crow Tribe in the Yukon Territory to being awarded the Ontario Bar Association Award for Distinguished Service. Today it is the great privilege of the University of New Brunswick to add to those honours by admitting Dennis O'Connor to the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

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