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Marguerite Ritchie, BA, LL.B, LL.M, hon. LL.D, was a bilingual, Ottawa-based, Edmonton-born and educated lawyer interested in human rights, women’s rights, constitutional and international law. After completing over three decades of work for the federal government in the Department of Justice and Anti-Dumping Tribunal, she founded the Human Rights Institute of Canada to provide legal research to the public on key political and human rights issues. Marguerite Ritchie has been awarded various honours for her work, including a federal Queen’s Council, the Order of Canada, and an honorary degree from her alma mater, the University of Alberta.
Marguerite Elizabeth Winnifred Ritchie was born May 20, 1919. She went by Betty Ritchie for much of her youth. She was born to Allan Issac Ritchie and Marguerite Blanche Ritchie (nee Baxter). She had two brothers, musician Norman A. Ritchie (d. 1941) and pilot Robert Hume Ritchie (d. 2012), both of whom were in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. Marguerite Ritchie never married or had children. She occasionally published under the pen name E.M. O’Connor. ME Ritchie was an aunt to her brother Robert’s son and daughter and was a part-time caretaker for her elderly parents who were divorced by that time.
Marguerite Ritchie was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta. She attended one year of law school at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before returning to Alberta to finish her schooling. She moved to Ottawa, Ontario, in 1944. Marguerite Ritchie lived in Calgary, Alberta, during the Western Bread Case (1949-1951) and in Montreal, Quebec, attending the McGill University Law School (1954-1955). With the above exceptions, she has lived in Ottawa for most of her adult life until her death in April 2016.
ME Ritchie was educated predominately in Edmonton. She graduated from Strathcona High School in 1938 with the highest grades in the province of Alberta, thereby winning the Tegler Scholarship for three years of university tuition. She did exceptionally well in Latin and history classes. In 1938, Marguerite started at the University of Alberta, studying history and law. After winning a national scholarship to attend a year of law school at another university, Marguerite chose to take her first year of law school at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She graduated from the University of Alberta in 1943 with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and a Bachelor of Law (LL.B.). Marguerite articled at a law firm in Edmonton before being invited to the Alberta Bar in 1944. She subsequently moved to Ottawa, Ontario, to work for the federal government. The Department of Justice sent Marguerite to the Institute of International Air Law at McGill University for a year of study to become an expert in international air law. Marguerite also became the Department of Justice expert in international law and laws of the United Nations as well as earning her a Masters in Law (LL.M.) in 1958. Marguerite wrote two theses for this program, the first being a comprehensive survey on international air law to date, which was rejected for being too broad. She then wrote a thesis on hijacking of airplanes, or skyjacking, which influenced Canadian air law and presented at various international conferences on air law. Marguerite Ritchie received an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Alberta in 1975 for her commitments and contributions to human rights and women’s issues. Since then, she has used the title “Dr.”
Marguerite Ritchie joined the Department of Justice in 1944. Despite being a member of the Alberta Bar, women were not permitted to be hired as lawyers in the Department of Justice at the time. Working as an assistant, ME Ritchie contributed case-winning legal research to major government legal cases. As a result of her successes, she was hired as counsel for the Combines Investigation branch of the Department of Justice in 1947. Part of her Combines Investigation work included the Western Bread Case, during which she was relocated to Calgary for two and a half years. Shortly after her return to Ottawa she was promoted to advisory counsel for the Department of Justice proper, being the first woman to hold the position. As Senior Advisory Counsel, she contributed to cases such as the Off-shore Mineral Rights case. The Department of Justice sought to make her its resident expert on international law, a new field at the time, and sent her to McGill University to attend a master’s program. Her areas of focus were international law, constitutional law, international air law, domestic law, human rights, and the status of women. She eventually left the Department of Justice when she felt it was no longer concerned strictly with the letter of the law and advocating fairness, but instead had become too political.
Outside of her work at the Department of Justice, ME Ritchie contributed pro bono legal advice to the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa in the early 1950s as its first legal advisor. For a decade from the 1950s to the 1960s, Marguerite was on the executive of the University Women’s Club of Ottawa where she served as Vice-President from 1955 to 1958 and President from 1958 to 1960. ME Ritchie acted as a legal advisor for the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Along with her volunteer work for women’s organizations, Marguerite also published various articles on women’s rights. These included the magazine article “How Canada Wastes its Woman Power” in 1960 about women not putting their education to use and Canada thereby losing a significant portion of educated adults who where not employed, as well as the legal articles “Alice Through the Statutes” in 1975 and “The Language of Oppression: Alice Talks Back” in 1977. Both appeared in the McGill Law Journal. The Alice articles traced legal double standards that disadvantaged women and otherwise excluded women by referring only to men in legislation.
Marguerite Ritchie’s work was recognized by the Department of Justice when she became the first woman to be awarded a federal Queen’s Counsel in 1963, opening the door to this prestigious honour for other women. She was also awarded the Centennial Medal in 1967 for her service.
In 1972 Marguerite Ritchie accepted an appointment to the Vice-Chair of the Anti-Dumping Tribunal to restore trust in the tribunal’s work amid scandals. The Anti-Dumping Tribunal regulated imports to Canada to make sure products met Canadian standards. While Vice-Chair, Marguerite worked under three Chairmen. At the beginning of her term, she thought she would only be on the tribunal for a few years before moving on to the proposed Human Rights Commission, which Marguerite had pushed for throughout the 1960s at the Department of Justice. The Business and Professional Women’s Club supported Marguerite to be appointed as Canada’s first Human Rights Commissioner. After government delays, the Business and Professional Women’s Club said they would create their own Human Rights Commission. When this plan fell through, Marguerite decided to open the Human Rights Institute of Canada. The Human Rights Institute of Canada was founded in 1974 and officially announced its establishment during her acceptance speech when she received an honorary Doctorate of Laws (LL.D.) on May 28, 1975, from the University of Alberta for her work in human rights, women’s rights, and international law. She worked at the Human Rights Institute of Canada part time until she left the Anti-Dumping Tribunal in September of 1979 after which she volunteered her expertise full time to the Institute. Her departure from the Anti-Dumping Tribunal was at the end of her term contract. However, her last few years at the tribunal were fraught with conflict as Marguerite Ritchie felt that being passed over for appointment to the Chair was gender discrimination. Marguerite retired from the federal government after leaving her position at the Anti-Dumping Tribunal and turned down an appointment to a judgeship that would have made her the first woman to be a federal court judge in Canada.
Before and during her time at the Human Rights Institute of Canada, Marguerite developed friendships with others working for women’s rights, including Mary Two-Axe Earley, Hilda Cryderman, and Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson. ME Ritchie was inspired by the work of women’s organizations and the anti-discrimination activism at the time, as well as influencing some of these activists. Her main focuses at the Human Rights Institute of Canada were women’s rights, rights for aboriginal women, the constitution and proposed constitutional accords, Israel and anti-Semitism, and English language rights.
Marguerite Ritchie was awarded the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case in 1997 and the Order of Canada in 2000 for her work in human rights and for women’s rights.
In the presentation of Marguerite Ritchie to the Chancellor of the University of Alberta when she was awarded an honorary doctorate, she was described as being “…concerned about the real people to whom the law applies, and who has in all her work looking at the law not as an end in itself but as a means of bringing justice to others” (University of Alberta Archives Accession 2013-51, file 1745). Marguerite Ritchie was passionate, driven, focused, meticulous, dedicated, quick witted, intelligent, persuasive, loyal to her friends, and steadfast in her convictions.
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Personal papers of Marguerite Ritchie and records of the Human Rights Institute of Canada
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Rolled into UAA-2013-015