Profile: Author-professor Martin Friedland

Martin Friedland, the University of Toronto law professor and author of an impressive and influential shelf of books, jokes that he’s not about to change the “O.C.” on his business cards to a “C.C.” just because the Governor General recently upgraded his status within the Order of Canada from “officer” to the much more distinguished “companion.”

Friedland, whose latest work The University of Toronto: A History appeared in 2002 to mark the institution’s 175th anniversary, is one of only about 400 citizens to receive the companion designation, the country’s highest national honour.

Honours have been flowing steadily to the 71-year-old Toronto native and former dean of the law faculty. Last year he gave convocation addresses at his own and York University and received honourary degrees from both institutions. His many other awards and honours include a recent medal from the Royal Society of Canada and a $50,000 Molson prize in 1995.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Friedland spoke with The CJN in his office in the elegantly-pillared Joseph Flavelle House on Queen’s Park Circle.

Reflecting upon the four decades of achievements that began soon after he was called to the Ontario bar in 1960, he explained that the 764-page U of T tome was “the perfect post-retirement project” — he began the massive task at age 65 and it took him four years to complete.

Like each of his books in turn, it was a “struggle” to write, he said. “I knew that it would be difficult to do but that it could be done. I never doubted that I would finish it, but I didn’t know how well it would be received.”

His determination not to let the scholarship get in the way of the story paid off in the form of glowing reviews. Friedland later spent six months criss-crossing the country, promoting the book and giving talks about university history, which he says is, in part, a microcosm of our national history as well as the history of ideas over the last two centuries.

Taken as an oeuvre, Friedland’s body of 17 books reflect a wide range of subjects; most are based on legal themes and have had significant influence on public policy. The first, Detention Before Trial (1965), was a detailed study of pretrial procedures in 6,000 court cases that led to changes to Canada’s bail laws.

Similarly, A Place Apart (1995) spurred changes in the area of judicial appointments, while Controlling Misconduct in the Military (1997), which focused on the army’s experiences in Somalia, likewise encouraged reforms. Other influential books and papers have focused on legal-social niches as diverse as traffic safety and gun control.

“All of my books are in different areas. The only time I repeated myself was in the three murder books, yet they’re all different because they take place in different countries and involve different legal systems.”

This is probably the prolific author's latest book

A professor emeritus since 1998, Friedland’s roving imagination led him to write what he calls his “murder mysteries” — three non-fiction courtroom dramas chronicling intriguing crimes of the 19th-century. Each reflects a deep concern with the seeming arbitrariness of the criminal justice system.

“I was trying to make academic points about the frailty of the criminal justice system by using real cases, so I could show that even in the case of someone who might be hanged, there can be real doubt in the judge’s mind about whether the accused is guilty or not.”

In his first “true-crime” book, The Trials of Israel Lipski, which won a Crime Writers of Canada Award soon after its publication in 1984, Friedland revived an obscure but fascinating case involving a Jewish immigrant in London’s seedy Whitechapel district. “That was interesting for me because I learned a lot about Jewish immigration patterns and the anti-semitism of the time, even the growth of Zionism. I got a feel for the times.”

In writing it, Friedland discovered he could generate suspense by not revealing the outcome of the trial until the closing chapters, leaving the reader guessing all the way through whether the accused will be executed. He used a similar technique in the University history, typically beginning each section at a point of high drama, then filling in background and discussing issues on an intellectual plane.

Eager to do a murder book in a Canadian setting, he spent endless hours searching old newspapers and transcripts for a good story. Eventually he became fascinated by a forgotten case that occurred in Valleyfield, Que., in 1895. The resultant book, The Case of Valentine Shortis, appeared in 1986.

“I think I demonstrated, certainly to my own satisfaction, that the Shortis case influenced the 1896 election in which Wilfrid Laurier became prime minister. The case taught me a great amount about French-English relations, about the law of insanity and many other things.”

While hunting for a suitable murder case set in the United States, Friedland edited Rough Justice, an anthology of essays on crime and literature (1991). His third murder story, The Death of Old Man Rice, was set in Manhattan and came out in 1994. Since then, he’s been researching a fourth murder story based in India.

“I’ve got about three boxes of material here in the office and about 10 more at home. The case is centered in Calcutta, but it may be too complex to tell. There are a lot of false starts in these things.”

One such false start involved a Jewish adventurer in British Columbia’s Fraser River Valley more than 140 years ago. On a trip to Victoria, Friedland was intrigued to find that the first person buried in the old Jewish cemetery was a murder victim named Price.

“The tombstone said ‘Killed in Cayoosh, on the Fraser River, May 1861.’ So I thought it would be an interesting case. How did this Jewish man get to the gold-mining town of Cayoosh in 1861? What was his background? What happened to him? But I did a search and it turns out there wasn’t enough material for me to proceed with a book.”

His current writing project, tentatively titled Criminal Justice in Canada Revisited, is a sort of broad look at the diverse areas of law that he’s investigated throughout his career. The volume is to be a kind of summing up of his many past endeavours and an attempt to knit them together into an integrated whole.

“I felt I had an obligation, in a sense, to take all of these individual topics I’ve worked on and say something intelligent about the criminal justice system as a whole.”

It’s a moot point whether the project’s broad scope is a hint that the prolific professor is planning to slow down. But why should he, just when he’s seemingly reached this new pinnacle?

As the interview concluded, Friedland spoke of his family’s various involvements within the Jewish community and reminisced about his immigrant father, a former lady’s-wear merchant whose universe centred around Queen and Spadina. No doubt the latter would have been proud and thankful at how fully Canada has smiled upon his wise and industrious son. ♦

© 2004