Judge Scow’s inspiring story

Joan Scow stands in the Vancouver condominium she shares with her husband, retired Provincial Court Judge Alfred Scow. She sweeps her arm — gesturing to the walls covered in symbols that mark a life of incredible achievement.

“This is Alf’s Order of Canada,” she said pointing to a framed certificate. “And below it is his Order of BC.” She continues walking around the room describing each object representing another milestone in her husband’s groundbreaking career. “We haven’t even hung that one up yet,” she said, pointing to the latest honour that sits perched on a plush easy chair — the certificate’s frame leans comfortably against the tufted buttons. “And over here,” she said, gently touching a meticulous and beautiful wooden mask, “was Alf’s attempt at carving. He wanted to see if he could do it, so he carved this, realized he could and then never carved again.” 

Retired Judge Alfred Scow was honoured at the June 16 Law Society event, Inspiring stories connecting future leaders.

Judge ScowAs his wife of 46 years highlights just a few of his many achievements, Judge Scow sits quietly on the couch with his head bowed. “He’s so modest,” continues Joan. “If I’d done half the things he has I would shout it from the mountain tops, but not Alf.”

Indeed Judge Scow has accomplished much. He has led a life of firsts: the first Aboriginal person to graduate from the University of British Columbia law school; the first to be called to the Bar in BC; and the first legally trained Aboriginal person to be appointed to the Bench.

On June 16 at an event entitled Inspiring stories connecting future leaders, the Law Society joined the ranks of many other organizations when it recognized the outstanding contributions of Judge Scow.

Tina Dion, a lawyer and President of the Scow Institute for Communicating Information on Aboriginal Issues — an organization that works toward greater understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples — spoke to Judge Scow’s achievements at the Law Society event.

“There is no question,” said Dion, “that Alfred Scow, along with his lovely wife Joan, has contributed an enormous amount to Canadian society — he is a real hero for all Aboriginal peoples, as well as for all Canadians.”

But Judge Scow, himself, doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t know who thinks of me that way,” he said. “Do Indians think of me that way, do white people think of me that way or do I think of me that way? I have never really been consciously thinking of myself as a role model.” But when the point is pressed that, like it or not, other people do see him that way, Judge Scow concedes that, while he didn’t intend it, “I feel very good about that.”

Born April 10, 1927 in Alert Bay, Scow was the eldest of 16 children. His father, Chief William Scow of the Kwicksutaineuk Nation, and mother Alice both valued formal education. Their son attended St. Michael’s Indian Residential School as well as public schools in Richmond and Vancouver. It was during his senior year at Kitsilano High School that the yearbook editors became the first to learn of Scow’s future career path.

“What really happened in my decision to become a lawyer,” said Scow, “was one of the young ladies who was preparing the yearbook asked me, ‘What are you going to do when you finish schooling?’ I said ‘I want to become a lawyer,’ so,” laughed Scow, “when I made that statement I had to do it.”

Joan added, “He’s a man of his word!”

But Scow said law school was not easy. “I’ve never been an academic. I had troubles with getting my degrees and so on because I never really developed good study habits. So when UBC accepted me I said to myself, ‘OK smarty, now you’re going to have to work!’ And I had difficulties, but fortunately the Dean and some of the professors encouraged me.”

He made friends quickly, though. “You see, I’d gone through the high schools in the Lower Mainland and I was the only Aboriginal in most of them and I participated in sports. Soccer was my game — softball, track and others, as well.” Scow said it was the same in law school. “Sports provided instant acquaintance. I became friends with many of my teammates.”

After graduating at the age of 34 he changed history. The head of the Indian Affairs Department for BC attended the ceremony at which Scow became the first Aboriginal person in the province to be called to the Bar.

It wasn’t that no other First Nations person had wanted to. In 1919 the Benchers of the day passed a resolution that prevented First Nations and other specific ethnic minorities from being admitted to the legal profession, because they were barred from voting in government elections. “If I had graduated before we were given the federal vote I would not have been eligible to enter the profession of law,” said Scow.

After graduating, Scow recalls being offered his first murder case. “The parents of this future client came to see me. They said, ‘We want you to defend our daughter who is charged with murder.’ I said, ‘Oh boy, I’m quite new in this field so I really think you should get somebody who’s more experienced.’ ‘No,’ they said, ‘we want you.’”

Scow said he went to different lawyers to talk about the case. “Two of my lawyer friends said, ‘you really should get a senior lawyer to run the case,’ and I thought that was good advice. So I went to talk to one of the top criminal lawyers.”

Unfortunately, he was tied up in another trial, so Scow said to him, “I have a question to ask you. Do you think I should take this case on my own?” Scow describes what happened next, “‘Alfred,’ he says, ‘I just have a question to ask you. You’re a lawyer aren’t you?’ I said ‘yes.’ He sat up in his chair and he looked at me and he says, ‘Alfred the time has come and my advice to you is (Scow pauses for effect) take the &#*%! case.’” While Scow laughs about that moment now, he did go on to take the case and — despite his own concerns about being relatively new to the profession — he won.

After less than two years of practice, Scow took the job of city prosecutor for New Westminster. From there, he accepted an assignment from the federal government on the Amerindian Lands Commission, working in Guyana. After two years in South America he returned to BC and became chair of a board of review for the Workers’ Compensation Board. A short time later he applied to the provincial government for a judicial appointment.

His wife, Joan enjoys telling what happened next. “He came home and I shouted, ‘Hi, Judge!’ He thought I was kidding, but I heard it on the radio.” Scow served on the Bench for 23 years.

Among his other achievements are serving on the management council for UBC’s First Nations House of Learning and acting as a lifetime member of the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Society; he was its founding president. He also published a children’s book in 2006 with Andrea Spalding and Darlene Gault. Secret of the Dance tells the true story of then nine-year-old Scow who, unbeknownst to his parents, snuck in to watch his father dance at a potlatch, which at the time was prohibited by the Indian Act. The book was selected as one of the 2007 Best Books for Kids and Teens by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre.

Over the course of his long distinguished career Scow has witnessed many changes for Aboriginal people and society. But, according to Scow, “What has not changed is the necessity to adapt and to take your studies seriously.”

He and Joan have tried to help needy law students focus on their studies by raising funds to fully endow a bursary for them. It is still available for law students at UBC and the University of Victoria.

When asked what advice Scow has for First Nations students considering a legal career his reply is quick, “if I can do it, you can, too.” And perhaps it’s also true that because he did it, they will too.

We asked participants at Inspiring stories connecting future leaders, “What does Judge Scow mean to you?”

Rosalie WilsonRosalie Wilson

“Walking as an Aboriginal person right now into the profession is challenging, so I can only imagine what he had to overcome in accomplishing it, and the way that he’s done it with a very humble nature makes me proud…”




Rhaea BaileyRhaea Bailey

He’s always had such a great sense of humour about everything, and he takes all the trials and tribulations he’s been through, and he uses those experiences to push him forward. He’s a great inspiration to the Aboriginal community and to all young lawyers.”




Elder Larry GrantElder Larry Grant

“Watching Alf’s career, I could see younger people coming up, going into university, going to law school, moving into a sphere of law-making ... allowing us to defend ourselves, to get our story out.”





Aldred John ScowAldred John Scow

“I had the opportunity to live with him for a year, and he has been very inspirational in my life. He told me when you get a goal, don’t stop until you get it.”




Joel CardinalJoel Cardinal

“I feel that he cleared a lot of barriers that I probably would have had if it wasn’t for him. He made it easier for me to fulfill my goals.”