Lederman, William Ralph (1916-1992)

[photo of William Lederman]
William R. Lederman

William R. Lederman was a noted constitutional scholar and the first dean of Queen's Faculty of Law.

He was born in Regina and educated at the University of Saskatchewan and then at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar and a Vinerian Scholar.

Lederman made a name for himself as one of Canada's leading constitutional lawyers while teaching at Dalhousie University (1949-1958). He was invited to be the first Dean of Queen's new Faculty of Law in 1958 and served in the post until 1968, but continued to teach in the faculty until the 1980s. The law library is named in his honour.

Lederman was constitutional adviser to then-Ontario Premier John Robarts between 1965 and 1971, and was a mentor to many other constitutional scholars in Canada.


Bill Lederman and Queen’s Law

[the opening of the law building]
Prime Minister John Diefenbaker opening what was then called the Sir John A. Macdonald law building in 1960, flanked by Chancellor Stirling, Dean Lederman and Principal Mackintosh.

Since the late 1800s and early 1900s, if you wanted to be a lawyer in Ontario, the road unavoidably led through Toronto. The Law Society of Upper Canada guarded the bar by insisting that all lawyers must qualify at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall.

As the province boomed in population and prosperity after the Second World War, that monopoly came under increasing pressure. The Law Society resisted change, but Osgoode became a bottleneck in the supply of lawyers to a society that needed legal expertise to smooth its progress. Other universities pressured for entry into the sanctum of legal education.

In the spring of 1957, Queen’s Vice-Principal Alex Corry, himself a lawyer and constitutional expert, pitched for a law school. He argued that Queen’s strong cast of supporting disciplines offered an ideal backdrop for would-be lawyers. The Law Society agreed, and that September, three professors and 24 students initiated a three-year LLB program in a brick house on University Avenue. Lectures were delivered in the basement of Richardson Hall. Corry was acting dean.

In their search for a full-time dean, Corry and Principal William Mackintosh found Regina-born William Ralph Lederman. Professor Lederman had BA and LLB from the University of Saskatchewan BA and LLB. At Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, he became a prestigious Vinerian Scholar in civil law. In 1949, he had joined the University of Dalhousie’s law school, and emerged as one of Canada’s leading constitutional specialists. Corry pulled him to Queen’s in 1958.

At Queen’s, Dean Lederman pushed for expansion, telling Principal Mackintosh that he wanted a dedicated law school building and a more aggressive enrolment target. In 1960, just as the first 18 Queen’s lawyers graduated, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker cut the ribbon on the Sir John A. Macdonald law building (later renamed the Law Building), which could accommodate 150 students. Almost immediately, the dean began telling VP Corry (who became principal after 1961) that the building was too small and its library inadequate. At the same time, Dean Lederman expanded his faculty with impressive new hires – scholars such as labour law specialist Bernard Adell, Quebec civil law expert and law librarian Irene Bessette (nee Borys), criminal lawyer Ron Delisle, constitutional and public law scholar Beverley Baines, and legal information specialist Hugh Lawford, to name just a few.

The Dean emphasized that his faculty should not just be proficient teachers but should also push the boundaries of the law through their research. Professor Lawford, for instance, began building a huge inventory of case law precedent, labelling it QUIK/LAW. Dean Lederman himself served as a constitutional advisor to Ontario Premier John Robarts.

Perhaps the dean’s most lasting legacy was his insistence that a legal education be more than training in the nuts and bolts of criminal and civil law. Lawyers must be engaged by the realities of the society they served. Legal scholars must connect themselves with social justice, constitutional adjustment, and the ever-changing role of law in society.

By the time he left the deanship in 1968, Queen’s legal scholarship had won a national reputation. Challenges remained — such as bringing women into the teaching and conceptualization of the law – but Bill Lederman had set the course. He continued teaching at Queen’s and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1981. He died in 1992.