Seize the serendipitous, says former law dean

Peter Hogg (left), scholar in residence at Toronto’s Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP and former dean at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, is Canada’s leading constitutional law scholar. Hogg was presented with an honorary degree during York’s convocation ceremony on June 16 for Osgoode graduates.

The author of the definitive Constitutional Law of Canada, Hogg has been cited twice as much as any other source by the Supreme Court of Canada and appeared as counsel in a number of constitutional cases. Often called upon to give expert testimony in constitutional law, governmental liability and trusts, he has also advised provincial and federal governments. He was named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2003 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1988.

His journey to become such an expert was an act of serendipity, Hogg told the graduating students. A 33-year career with the law school began with a trip to Canada for a one-year sojourn at Osgoode. “When I graduated from law in New Zealand, I intended to practise law in my father’s law firm in Wellington. I had no intention of becoming an academic, no plan to go to graduate school. One of my professors drew to my attention a notice of application for scholarship at a graduate school in the United States.” The US was a distant and exotic land for Hogg, who thought it would be an adventure to travel there. He met his wife in the US and his studies eventually led him to becoming an academic lawyer.

When he came to Osgoode in 1970, “the law school had moved up to York University just the previous year. There was a sense of excitement about the new opportunities.” During that one year, Hogg was offered a permanent position as professor of law at Osgoode.

Serendipity continued to play a role in Hogg’s life with the request by the law school’s dean that he teach Canadian constitutional law. “At that time, I knew nothing about it,” said Hogg. “Administrative law was my speciality. The dean’s problem was that he had many who could teach administrative law, but no one who could teach Canadian constitutional law.” Hogg took on the challenge. “Six years later, when I was entitled to a sabbatical leave, it occurred to me that the notes I had prepared for my students could be the basis for a textbook on constitutional law. That sabbatical year, I wrote the first edition of Constitutional Law of Canada.”

The book was released in 1977. “Then the Charter of Rights was adopted in 1982 and that changed everything in the world of constitutional law – suddenly everyone on the faculty wanted to teach constitutional law. The dean’s problems were over.” Hogg’s textbook went into a second edition in 1984 and grew to 1,000 pages from 500. With its third edition in 1992, the textbook grew again to 1,500 pages. Hogg is currently working on the fifth edition.

“The transformation of Canadian constitutional law was certainly part of prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s plan, but it was certainly not part of mine as far as I was concerned,” said Hogg. “When I look back, all the important things, both personal and professional, seemed to have happened by accident. Certainly all were unplanned and I want to suggest to you all that there is a lesson in that, and the lesson is to allow for serendipity.”

Hogg cited a fairy tale in which three princes from Ceylon made discoveries in their lives through accidents of fate. “That story made serendipity part of the English language. It is defined in the Oxford dictionary as the faculty to make unexpected and happy discoveries in life by accident. It is the quality that makes travel so enjoyable, when you do something on the spur of the moment,” said Hogg. “As you become more experienced, you will develop the knowledge and self-confidence to seize the serendipitous when it comes along. Your careers and personal lives will follow paths which you cannot now predict. You should not plan your life in any rigid way. If you do that, you will miss opportunities that will make you happy. Keep your minds open to the exciting things that can happen and make room for serendipity.”