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5 min

Ian Gilmour Scott

Jul 13, 1934 — Oct 10, 2006

PUBLIC VERSUS PRIVATE. Ian Scott, in an undated family photo, kept his very gay life separate from his political life.

The bare bones of Ian Scott’s life can be outlined like this: Born in Ottawa, the eldest of six children of a well-connected Catholic family; left home just after his 17th birthday to study first at the University Of Toronto and then Osgoode Hall Law School; established, with the aid of his cousin and mentor Andrew Brewin, a successful boutique law firm specializing in labour law and civil litigation; argued important constitutional and Charter cases in the Supreme Court Of Canada; served as Commission Counsel on public inquiries as diverse as prison riots, the establishment and funding of legal clinics, and northern pipeline development (the work he was most proud of); taught law at U of T for 15 years; ran unsuccessfully for the provincial Liberals in 1981; was elected in 1985, 1987 and 1990; served as Attorney General from 1985 to 1990; was also Minister Responsible For Women’s Issues and Minister For Native Affairs; resigned his seat in 1992 to resume the private practice of law and to care for his partner Kim Yakabuski who was dying from AIDS; suffered a severe stroke in May 1994, six months after Kim’s death; battled hard to regain his speech and his mobility; wrote his memoirs with considerable help from friends and colleagues who shared war stories with me, his ghost writer; received five honorary degrees; was made an Officer Of The Order Of Canada; died in his sleep at home at the age of 72; had a funeral mass that packed the cathedral; and was buried beside Kim at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

But that only scratches the surface.

Ian was stubborn, mercurial, funny, charming when he chose to be and bloody-minded when he did not get what he wanted. He was unbelievably brave and devoid of self-pity in the face of the devastating stroke which robbed him of his profession and seriously curtailed his ability to read, write and speak.

He knew he was gay from very early on in his childhood. He also knew this had to be kept secret in an era when disclosure meant prison. His first love affair, begun when he was 14, was with a former teacher who was twice as old as Ian. For one or two summers, Ian’s lover rented a cottage on McGregor Lake, still the site of a Scott-family cottage. Sometimes the two would spend Friday afternoons in bed and then Ian’s lover, a friend of Ian’s parents, would go for drinks and dinner at the senior Scotts’ cottage. Keeping private lives private was thus ingrained early. The Scott family anticipated Bill Clinton’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which remained staunchly in place as long as his parents were alive.

Ian’s first public acknowledgement that he was gay didn’t come until the notice he wrote for Kim’s death in November 1993.

For most of his life, Ian kept his personal and professional lives strictly separated. His farm near Erin, Ontario, was a gay refuge: most of his legal colleagues were never invited to stay there. Ian and his three successive partners entertained there a lot. He was a serious gardener, a good host, though prone to disappear from time to time to read the biographies and political histories that provided his recreational reading.

In earlier years, he travelled a lot to places where it was easier to be with gay friends. He went often to Ogunquit, Maine (where he met his first live-in lover); to New York City, where he would sometimes see the Metropolitan Opera in the afternoon and Bette Midler in the baths in the evenings. For many years, he and a group of his friends would go south to Key West or Mexico, or west to San Francisco or San Diego, where they enjoyed riotous good times, almost always fuelled by large amounts of alcohol. His “camp” name was Zelda, derived from Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and there was a whiff of privileged golden youth about him almost all of his adult life.

In politics, his toughness was legendary. He faced down the doctors in a doctors’ strike; he infuriated many judges with his court reforms; he stayed the charges an overzealous Toronto police chief brought against Henry Morgentaler; he ticked off lawyers by effectively ending the practice of appointing QCs and then he further enraged them by bringing in a no-fault auto insurance regime that virtually stopped a lucrative area of legal practice.

He also infuriated many members of the gay community. They saw his refusal to acknowledge his sexuality as something of a betrayal, or an abdication of a leadership role. In the 1990 election campaign, he ran against Keith Norton, himself in the closet while in the Davis government, who had come out. Going into a debate at the 519 Community Centre, Ian expected Norton to challenge him to come out. Ian preempted this by having a friend rise on a point of order to ask him about his sexuality. Ian’s reply was “My friends know who I am and what I stand for.” And there the matter rested.

Although he amended the Ontario Human Rights Code to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, in 1990, he refused to support Crown attorney Michael Leshner’s claims to same-sex employment benefits from the provincial government; Leshner won a human rights complaint in 1992.

“In retrospect, I wish I had been more accommodating on the issue of spousal benefits for gay couples,” Ian later wrote.

After the stroke in 1994, Ian’s inhibitions were considerably loosened. His toughness remained. When his ex-partner Jimmie Smith died of a haemorrhage from throat cancer in Key Biscayne, Florida, the police, possibly rattled by the Gianni Versace murder, first treated it as a homicide investigation and prevented Ian from flying out that day as scheduled. The Law Society was conferring an honorary doctorate on him the next day. It was not until late at night the Florida police permitted him to go. He got home at two in the morning, got the degree at a large ceremony and went to a reception that evening, though obviously emotionally and physically exhausted.

At the burial service for Jimmie in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, I gave the eulogy because Ian was unable. After, Ian told me, “You made me cry twice.” To my knowledge, he only cried publicly then and after seeing Saving Private Ryan when he stood up at the end of the movie, shook his cane in the direction of the screen, and shouted “The Germans, goddammit, the Germans!” repeatedly, with tears streaming down his face.

For the first 10 years after the stroke, Ian kept up a remarkable social schedule filled with concerts, operas, movies and lunches. His friends, most notably Peter Brown, spent hours reading to him from the latest political biographies and histories. Their lunches kept him up on all the latest political gossip.

In the last two years of his life, he cut out the concerts, the opera and movies. On his winter pilgrimage to Victoria this year, he was hospitalized and contracted a C difficile infection, which seemed to send him into a steep decline.

Ian’s last two months were mostly spent in hospitals. He refused tests that might have aided in providing a diagnosis. His ambition became clear: he wanted to go home to die. He made it home. I last saw him at five, the evening of Thanksgiving Day. I asked him how he was. He said, “I’m fine.” And he was, because he wanted to die and did that night in his sleep.

He went out in the same way he had lived his life: on his terms, not concerned with what the rest of the world thought, determined to the end to march to the beat of his own drum.