Remembering Peter Russell
Canada loses another scholarly giant, and I another academic hero
We learned yesterday that Peter H. Russell died this week, at the age of 91. One of Canada’s foremost political scientists and constitutional experts, Russell was a leading scholar of the courts, parliamentary governance, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Indigenous rights and state-Indigenous relations, and constitutional reform.
I sometimes referred to Peter as my “academic grandfather” (especially when he was around - he would always give a laugh when I’d mention it), as he was PhD supervisor to my own PhD supervisor, Janet Hiebert, at the University of Toronto. Russell was supervisor and mentor to many, such that he was an academic father, grandfather, and great-grandfather many times over.
Russell’s tremendous academic career spanned nearly seven decades - although he retired from UofT over 25 years ago (back in the days of mandatory retirement), he never stopped being tremendously active - indeed, prolific - as a scholar. In fact some of his most noteworthy works were published in retirement, including Recognizing Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English-Settler Colonialism (University of Toronto Press, 2005), Two Cheers for Minority Government: The Evolution of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy (Emond Publishing, 2008), Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests (University of Toronto Press, 2017) - for which he won the Canadian Political Science Association’s Donald Smiley Prize for best book on Canadian politics - and his latest book, Sovereignty: The Biography of a Claim (University of Toronto Press, 2021). The man published more in retirement than most academics do in their entire careers, a testament not merely to his longevity but his passion and energy for improving the quality of Canadian politics and governance.
Earlier in his career he published what is arguably the first major (book length) study of the Supreme Court of Canada as part of the Royal Commission of Bilingualism and Biculturalism, titled The Supreme Court of Canada as a bilingual and bicultural institution (1969). He was the true pioneer in the study of courts from a political science perspective, including his 1987 book The Judiciary in Canada: The Third Branch of Government (McGraw-Hill Ryerson). He also wrote groundbreaking early analyses of the Charter of Rights.
His most widely known work, read by thousands of students over many decades, was Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People? The third edition of this book was published in 2004, and it is the authoritative telling of Canada’s constitutional evolution up until the twenty-first century.
Peter’s intellectual contributions extend far beyond his scholarship. He was an advisor to governments, Governors General and Lieutenant Governors, and parliamentarians, served on numerous commissions, including as Research Director on the McDonald Commission on the RCMP and as Chair of the Research Advisory Committee for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. He was cited multiple times by the Supreme Court of Canada and by trial and appellate courts across the country.
Peter was a passionate advocate for reconciliation and for an equitable relationship between the Canadian state and Indigenous peoples. He was similarly a fierce defender of basic constitutional principle, conventions, and parliamentary practice. While unfailingly kind and generous to fellow academics, he could be a harsh critic of the political class. He was especially critical of what he viewed as the Harper government’s norm-violating approach to Parliament and the constitution, so much so that some of his peers viewed some of his umbrage as “excessive”.
I think like many political scientists who study institutions and especially the constitution, Peter was one of the people who you’d want to model your career on, a sentiment shared by my colleague Jonathan Malloy in his own remembrance. The depth and breadth of his research is remarkable.
I was pleased that Peter was able to contribute to a very recent edited volume I put together with Kate Puddister, Constitutional Crossroads: Reflections on Charter Rights, Reconciliation, and Change (UBC Press, 2022). Peter’s chapter in that volume explores the important questions emanating from a changing context in Canada’s constitutional system: the growing recognition that there is more than one constitutional order, the existence of Indigenous constitutional orders, and the need for us to adapt to ensure their co-existence. It is fitting that this will stand as one of the last things Peter published.
Peter and I exchanged emails just three weeks ago. I wrote him to quickly compliment his Sovereignty book, which had lived on my shelf for a couple of years before I finally sat down to give it a proper cover-to-cover read. He wrote back to thank me for reading and to wish my family a happy Christmas. I’m glad I took the minute to send him my thoughts - we don’t do that often enough with people we admire or care about.
In the last few years Canada has lost an entire generation of leading constitutional experts: Alan Cairns, Peter Hogg, David E. Smith, and now Peter Russell. These are people who weren’t just “leading scholars” or “giants” in the field, in many ways they created or established entire areas of study or ways of thinking about institutional relationships, our system of government, our society, and the ways we are governed. We will continue to benefit from their knowledge and insights for generations to come. I’m a bit comforted by the fact that, in this particular sense, they are not truly gone.