Robertson Stromberg

The Honourable James Wilfred Estey (1889 – 1956)

Early Years

James Wilfred (Bill) Estey was born in Keswick, New Brunswick, on December 1, 1889. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts at the University of New Brunswick and went on to Harvard, obtaining a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1915. That same year, he came to Saskatoon.

His son, the late Clarence Estey, recalled it in this way:

“Both Moxon and my father were brought here to start the law school… Murray had made two or three trips to Harvard around 1915 lining up professors and he lined up a fellow by the name of C.J. McKenzie who became the Dean of Engineering, Thorvaldson, W.P. Thompson and my father. My father was a year or two behind these other people, he was a year or two younger and they came in 1912 or 1913 and he came out in 1915… Dr. Murray told me he wanted to get an Oxford man and a Harvard man to start the law school here so that’s why he got hold of these two fellows.”

Clarence recalled that when these professors got to Saskatoon “Murray for some reason didn’t want to start the law school right away, but he didn’t want to let these fellows go either.” Wilfred (Bill) was set up as a teacher of Agricultural Economics. However, in order to keep Estey happy, Murray got him a job downtown. Clarence’s father liked practice and remained downtown although he did return to the University as a sessional lecturer.

University Years 1915-1934

Among his momentos, Clarence Estey found record of his father’s lecturing years. In his father’s attendance book, the attendance book which included the class of Emmett Hall and John Diefenbaker, he has written “Flu Epidemic – No Lectures”. Emmett Hall also recalls the epidemic.

Clarence Estey said, of his father’s teaching style, “he was a driver – driving the points home”. Emmett Hall comments, “Oh he was very good. Estey was a first rate man.” He had a continuing interest in education, lecturing in law at the University of Saskatchewan from 1915 to 1925, and serving as a Governor of the University from 1926-34. Clarence recalls that it was Mr.Murray’s idea to establish his father as Governor. At the time the Governor had extensive say over the running of the University, and in this way Dr. Murray would not lose Mr. Estey entirely.

Early Practice

President of the University, Walter Murray found Bill Estey a job with the McCraney, McKenzie and Hutchinson. It was here that he articled as a law student with Mr. P.E. McKenzie who was an agent for the Attorney General for the Judicial District of Saskatoon. In 1917, he was admitted to the Saskatchewan Bar and thereafter remained with the McCraney firm until Mr. McKenzie was appointed a Judge of the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal in 1921. At that time Mr. Estey went to the Gilchrist and Hogarth firm located in the Canada Building and shortly thereafter was appointed agent for the Attorney General to fill the vacancy occasioned by Mr. McKenzie’s appointment as a Judge. During the period 1921 to 1929, he acted as the agent for the Attorney General in the Saskatoon judicial district.

In addition to the work involved as agent for the Attorney General, Mr. Estey had a fair civil law practice. At this time Alex McDonald and Mr. Cecil Schmitt were also with the Gilchrist firm as junior members. Mr. McDonald was of substantial assistance to Mr. Estey in connection with the criminal practice. Clarence Estey recalled Mr. Schmitt’s contribution as the financial manager of the firm.

In 1928 Mr. Estey decided to form a new firm and invited Mr. McDonald and Cecil Schmitt to join him. The new firm set up in the Grain Building on 21st Street. Emmett Hall to this day remembers the year of the firm’s formation. Prior to the formation, Hall himself had been a tenant at the 21st street location. After Estey set up shop, the owners of the Grain Building asked Mr. Hall to vacate in order that they could rent the space to Mr. Estey.

A year after it’s formation, the firm was joined by Arthur Moxon. Clarence Estey recalled the unusual set of circumstances that resulted in Mr. Moxon’s joining. It seems that Dr. Moxon passed Mr. Estey on the stair one day in Convocation Hall. At that time Dr. Moxon expressed that he was coming downtown. Clarence remembered “My father, the next time they met , they met alone in Dr. Moxon’s office at the University, he said to Mr. Moxon are you leaving the University and. Mr. Moxon said, “yes” and my father was surprised.”

Then the subject turned to the matter of Mr. Estey looking for a senior lawyer to be a partner in the firm. Mr. Estey questioned Mr. Moxon to see if he knew of any lawyer who would be interested and available. Mr. Moxon replied “I am coming downtown, everything is fixed up.”

Mr. Estey questioned, “Where are you going?” and Mr. Moxon said, “I am coming with you”. Clarence said of Moxon, “I imagine Moxon was hurt when my father asked him to recommend a senior lawyer since he had intentions of joining him… but he hadn’t asked my father.”

That is how Mr. Moxon and Mr. Estey became partners. Clarence recalled that they operated for two decades 1928-1948, without a partnership agreement. At one point in time, an income tax man came to the office and asked that the partnership agreement be produced. Mr. Moxon replied that they did not have one, but “if you want to go out and prepare one I think we will sign it”. The fellow left.

Mr. Estey was also a member of the Saskatchewan Bar Association which existed from 1910-1935. This group led a more activist role than the Law Society during that time. The group of predominantly young lawyers was interested in improving the public image of the profession and to effect progressive law reforms.

Mr. Estey as Crown Prosecutor

During the 1920’s as Crown Prosecutor, Mr. Estey was involved in the case of the Christmas day murder of a railway mail clerk. However, the case became complicated as there was some doubt as to the wife’s testimony. The woman had been found beaten up somehow. She was able to phone the police but there was a big question as to whether she did the murdering or whether someone had beaten her up and then murdered her husband. The case is a precedent for a stay in proceedings. The charge of murder against the wife could not proceed due to lack of sufficient evidence.

In an informal memoir found in firm archives, Mr. Cecil Schmitt wrote of Mr. Estey :”the office as Agent for the Attorney General had its hazards. On one occasion Mr. Estey prosecuted a man for some criminal offence. The accused was found guilty and sentenced to jail. When Mr. Estey returned to the office the accused’s wife was waiting in the outer office. When she went into Mr. Estey’s private office she picked up a heavy ink well from his desk and threw it at him. Fortunately it missed him. My office was adjoining Mr. Estey’s private office and when I heard the row I went to his room. However Mr. Estey’s secretary, a rugged girl, was already on the scene and had the wife pinned to the wall. This was just one of the hazards of being the Crown prosecutor.”

Emmett Hall laughingly recalls, “Estey was a good prosecutor, but we got along alright, there was a certain amount of success both ways”. In 1928 Mr. Estey was created King’s Counsel.

Political Years 1934-1944

Bill Estey’s political career began in 1934. Prior to that in the 1929 Provincial Election Mr. Estey, one of the Liberal candidates for the Saskatoon constituency, was defeated by the Conservative candidate. This was attributable to some degree to the economic depression which was being experienced throughout Canada.

Estey ran successfully as a Liberal candidate in 1934. He was appointed Minister of Education (1934-41) in the new government formed by Mr. Gardiner.

Like Peter Makaroff, it is interesting to note that Mr. Estey was also involved with the Regina Riots. He had a different perspective than that of Mr. Makaroff, however. Clarence Estey recalled that as a member of the Provincial government Mr. Estey was very disturbed with the situation. His father also contacted President Murray to set up training for the people who had arrived at Regina on the trains.

In 1939, he was appointed Attorney General for Saskatchewan and served in that position for five years. Estey was also minister-in-charge of the Loan Companies Act, the Trust Companies Act and the Saskatchewan Power Commission. In 1944, the Liberals were defeated by the C.C.F. Party.

As Attorney-General Mr. Estey represented the three prairie provinces before the Privy Council regarding Alberta debt legislation. Clarence recalled the case. He was overseas at the time. The War was on. His father arrived without warning in order that he may present his case to the Privy Council. Clarence said with pride, “that is the basis of the law dealing with mortgages in Saskatchewan today, the basis. The legislation that grew out of the Judgment”.

Justice of the Supreme Court 1944-1956

In 1944, J. W. Estey was appointed a puisne judge of the Supreme Court of Canada and moved to Ottawa, where he spent the remainder of his life. He was the second Saskatchewan judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court (the first being John Henderson Lamont from 1927 to 1936).

Mr. Estey succeeded Sir Lymone Duff. It was tradition in the Supreme Court to buy the gown of the judge you were succeeding. Clarence Estey recalled “quite a good story” about his father and Duff. At the time of the transaction Duff did not have a nickel. Clarence recalled on his good days he would drink it. “Sir Lymone did far too much drinking in his day. But the son-of-a-gun, he wrote some wonderful judgments.” Mr. Duff would do his drinking out at the golf club, although he never played golf. Mr. Estey went up to settle with Duff about the gown. Clarence recalled his father presenting to Duff the figure he was willing to pay. The transaction was settled. Duff suggested that they go out to the club for a drink, to seal the transaction as it were. Mr. Estey replied “I don’t drink”. Duff was in shock.

Clarence admitted that perhaps his father’s thoughts on drinking stemmed from his Baptist background. He recalls that “the Baptist Church was everything” to his father. During Mr. Estey’s time as Crown Prosecutor, when there was a lot of bootlegging going on, Mr. Estey had no use for offenders that offended due to drunkeness.

During his time on the Bench, Estey received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of New Brunswick in 1945 and a degree of Civil Laws from the University of Saskatchewan in 1953.

While on the bench of the Supreme Court of Canada, Mr. Estey was known as one of the friendliest and most approachable members of the Court. He liked most sports and often discussed the latest scores with messengers and elevator operators in the Supreme Court building.

The Turta Case

Among Mr. Estey’s contributions to Canadian jurisprudence were his judgments relating to the Torrens land title system in Western Canada. One such case was the Turta case.

The Chief Justice at that time, Rinfret C.J.C., had written a judgment and circulated it among the other members of the bench. After reviewing it Mr. Estey became quite concerned. He went to Rinfret and said “if this goes out I am afraid that it is going to upset the whole Torrens system”. Clarence Estey recalled that Rinfret’s only response was for Mr. Estey to write a judgment of his own if he was so unhappy with Rinfret’s. Estey did and in the end, it was Estey’s decision that became the majority judgment.

Winner v.s. S.M.T. (Eastern) Ltd. and A.G. of Can.

Mr. Estey wrote a concurring judgment in this case. The case creates a precedent which allows bus lines such as Greyhound to operate interprovincially and internationally without coming under the licensing authority of each province. Clarence Estey recalled this case as another important contribution his father made while on the bench.

Mr. Estey died January 22, 1956 in Ottawa. An impressive funeral and burial were held in Saskatoon. His legacy was not forgotten, however. Justice J.W. Estey left two bright and industrious legal minds in his two sons Clarence and Willard (Bud) Estey, both of whom became judges, Willard Estey eventually making it to the Supreme Court of Canada.


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