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March 13, 1998
Supreme Court’s Binnie Apologizes for Gay Slur
Remark in speech about ‘faggoty dressup party’ draws fire
By Kirk Makin, Justice Reporter
The Supreme Court of Canada’s newest judge moved swiftly yesterday to defuse an uproar in the legal community over his public use of a phrase derogatory to homosexuals.
In a letter of apology to the dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, Mr. Justice Ian Binnie apologized for using the phrase "faggoty dressup party" during a speech to a school gathering last Saturday.
The incident took place at a large dinner to initiate new members of the Osgoode Hall "Inn" (branch) of a 130-year-old international legal fraternity, Phi Delta Phi.
During his keynote speech to about 200 law students, judges and other legal luminaries, Judge Binnie made jocular reference to an instruction found in a booklet laying out some fraternity initiation rituals.
"The use of the fraternity flag, wigs, candles and dramatic lighting will vary depending on the setting, character and tradition of the Inn," he quoted the pamphlet as saying.
Judge Binnie then remarked that upon seeing the instruction, he had wondered whether he would be attending some kind of "faggoty dressup party."
A woman in the audience recalled yesterday that there was an immediate stir among those in attendance. "There was some nervous laughter and a lot of people whispering back and forth, ‘Did he really say that?’ " she said in an interview.
In his letter to dean Marilyn Pilkington, Judge Binnie explained that when he noticed the phrase in the booklet, it brought to mind a Globe and Mail theatre review many years ago in which the critic had characterized a production of Macbeth as "a faggoty dressup party."
He said the comment just "popped out" of his mouth, and he doesn’t subscribe to the pejorative attitude that lies behind such words.
"Sometimes, as here, expressions that stick in your mind lose their original edge and significance with the passage of time," wrote the judge, who was appointed to the bench in January from his private law practice with the megafirm McCarthy Tetrault.
The woman who was present at the dinner—she asked to remain anonymous—said there has been considerable discussion among those who heard the remark about whether Judge Binnie’s comment betrayed a hidden bias against gays.
"It may be an indication that he doesn’t really perceive gays and lesbians to be a disadvantaged group in Canada," she said. "That is a subject that is currently being contested in the Supreme Court."
She said she didn’t think he would use a racial slur, "but if a member of the Supreme Court believes it is okay in an after-dinner speech to make a derogatory comment about gays, it means he doesn’t think it is wrong to discriminate against people on grounds of sexual orientation."
New Democratic Party MP Svend Robinson, a leading gay-rights activist, said in an interview yesterday that he was very upset when he heard of Judge Binnie’s remark.
"The words are deeply offensive, and for a Supreme Court judge to use that kind of language is totally inappropriate," Mr. Robinson said.
He said he called Ms. Pilkington on Wednesday and asked her to let Judge Binnie know it was imperative that he publicly apologize for the remark. "She said she would communicate the message to him," Mr. Robinson said.
He said he initially considered lodging a complaint about Judge Binnie with the Canadian Judicial Council, but has dropped the idea. "I have to give him credit," Mr. Robinson said. "He acted very quickly and apologized. I think the matter is closed."
Nonetheless, Mr. Robinson said, the matter should sound a loud warning to Judge Binnie that he has departed his former life as a private lawyer with a reputation for delivering thigh-slapping, irreverent speeches.
"This will be a strong lesson in how the world of the Supreme Court of Canada is very different than the world of McCarthy’s," he said. "If anything, it is going to heighten his sensitivity to the profound importance of language."
Mr. Robinson said the remark could hardly have come at a more sensitive time. Next week, the court is scheduled to hear arguments on a case involving the disposition of assets after the breakup of a gay partnership.
"The timing is terrible, coming on the eve of the court hearing," Mr. Robinson said.
He also noted that immediately after Judge Binnie’s appointment, there were concerns expressed in some corners of the gay community about him. As a litigator, Judge Binnie had represented a fundamentalist Christian group that sought to oppose a gay-rights issue before the court.
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