Arrogant. Flamboyant. Cocky. These are just some of the words used to describe Kenneth G. Young, Q.C., during his career as one of Canada’s leading criminal defence lawyers. That career ended on July 15, 2001, at the age of 60 when he lost his two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
Ken Young was a colourful character long before he became a lawyer. He was born June 21, 1941, in Winnipeg. His family later moved to Vancouver, where he attended Churchill Secondary. He realized early that if he attained straight As at school he could otherwise do as he pleased. As a teenager, Ken made pocket money running poker games and working travelling summer carnivals. There’s little doubt his gift of persuasion was honed working in his father’s pawn shop. He loved to tell the story of the time he sold a customer a used camera. Then, having completed the sale, he sold him the strap.
As talented a salesman as Ken was, he wasn’t well suited to that calling. It seemed Ken had a conscience when it came to such things. He felt compelled to quit a job he had selling Encyclopedia Brittanica because he was just too good at it. His final sale was to a young, single nursing student who had saved her money to buy a car. Ken’s pitch: “One day you’ll meet a man, get married and have children. You owe it to them.”
So it was off to UBC law school, where Ken’s ingenuity soon had him butting heads with the dean.
Big-firm politics were not his strong suit either. Articling at Cumming, BIrd after graduating from law school in 1965, Ken was asked by a partner to run a letter up the street. Ken’s response: “You ever heard of Western Union?” He wasn’t kept on.
After being called to the bar in 1966, Ken quickly made his mark, winning his first case in the Supreme Court of Canada as a mere three-year call. It was the first of many trips to Ottawa Ken would make over his career, and several leading criminal cases bear his name as counsel.
It was in the trial courts, however, where Ken’s legendary status was firmly established. The Vancouver Sun, reporting his death, gave an account of one of the more memorable tales. It arose out of a murder trial when a juror, peeved with Ken’s performance, called him an “arrogant bastard” in a loud stage whisper as the jury filed past the counsel table on the way to lunch. “I might well be, sir,” said Ken, “but I’m damned if I’ll hear it from the likes of you.” The prosecutor – now Mr. Justice Wally Oppal – remarked, “I guess we’ve got ourselves one smart juror, there,” to which Ken replied, “Yes, but all truth aside, we’ve got to see the judge about it.”
There are many Ken Young stories. And as Mr. Justice Oppal observed during his moving eulogy at the funeral service, most of them are true. But behind the stories was a man of great energy and substance who was a formidable adversary for any Crown counsel faced with the daunting task of obtaining a conviction when Ken Young was on for the defence. Ken’s approach to a case was simple – to know the case better than the prosecution and take it out of their hands. To this end, Ken worked tirelessly in his preparation, sitting down with a pound of coffee and a carton of cigarettes and working until the job was done. Ken took enormous pride in his work, and it showed.
If Ken had a favourite kind of case, it would have to be a case that others considered unwinnable. Although he was fond of saying he would “get a licence for your cat if you paid [him] enough”, Ken especially loved the challenge difficult cases presented.
As so often happens with the great ones, Ken’s dedication to the law took its toll on his personal life. Ken was married three times during his all-too-short lifetime. He married Carol Wosk in 1961 at the age of 20 and had two sons, Mark (1962) and David (1964). Ken and Carol later divorced, and Ken married his second wife, Carol Herbert (“Carol 2”, as he called her) in 1976 and had a third son, Michael in 1980. The couple separated in 1991 and divorced three years later. In 1995, he married again, this time to Margaret Richardson.
Eschewing committees, political correctness and diplomacy, Ken spent little time on bar activities. He gave back to the profession in other ways, however. Over the years, Ken took many young lawyers under his wing and shared his wealth of experience. Indeed, a considerable number of judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers spent time under Ken’s tutelage. Frankly, it was a great gig. Because Ken did all his own preparation, the main requirement of being his junior was to go out for lunch with him and keep him company while he railed against or revelled in the judge’s latest evidentiary ruling.
Ken not only practised with style and flair, he played that way, too. He liked to travel first class and had been all around the world, actually taking five months off at one point mid-career. In addition to his own professional-quality photographs, he filled his office and home with art and artifacts picked up during his many travels.
Ken also loved to gamble and was quick to tell his many stories of the winning hands and bad bets. Back in the early seventies, when a $25,000 line of credit still meant something, the Las Vegas casinos were reguarly flying Ken and a friend down for the weekend. On one occasion, he had lost several thousand dollars playing baccarat at the Sands and was in danger of running out of credit. But then the “little Mexican”, as Ken described him, sat down at the other end of the table and took the shoe. He went on to make 17 passes, and Ken walked a way with 30-odd thousand dollars. He bought new wardrobes for himself and his companion and two first-class tickets to Hawaii. That was his way.
Fortunately, as the years went by, Ken’s gambling gave way to the less costly hobbies of competitive Scrabble and fishing. Vegas vacations were largely replaced by trips to Rivers Inlet.
Despite these outside interests, Ken, for better or worse, defined himself through the law. For him, being in court was his primary source of joy, self-validation and therapy. When cancer took that away from him, he had a major adjustment to make.
Milestone after milestone passed. The birth of his first grandchild, David’s daughter, Emma. His sixtieth birthday. Emma’s first birthday. But battling his illness and reaching these milestones wasn’t enough. Ken needed more.
With time on his hands and unable to meet the demands of practice, Ken turned his mind to writing. And like everything else he took on, he did this with zeal, completing the Gemcitabine Blues, in longhand, while undergoing chemotherapy. It is a work of fact-based fiction, taking the story of one of Ken’s more notorious murder cases from the ’70s and trying it in modern times. The novel’s defence counsel, Ken himself, is defending the case while at the same time battling cancer. Filled with anecdotes and written in the sardonic tone that made him such a great storyteller, the Blues is not, strictly speaking, Ken’s autobiography, but it could as well be. Although not yet published, a limited edition of 100 copies were produced and bound and given to friends, family and many of Ken’s close colleagues. When he died, a sequel was in the works.
A few months before his death, Ken remarked that in a very real way his illness had been a blessing in that it had caused him to pause, reconsider his priorities and find a sense of peace that had eluded him for so much of his adult life. The French essayist and philosopher Montaigne said that “to philosophize is to learn how to die”. And there is no doubt that, on a spiritual level, his final two years were the most productive of Ken’s life. As he had to give up some independence and rely more and more on his wife, Margaret, they were brought closer and their marriage was enriched. He built new bridges with the sons from his first marriage, Mark and David. He finally came to terms with the tragic death of his brother, Robert, in 1977. He even let go and gave his youngest son, Michael, permission to grow up and be his own man.
A great man is one who makes his mark in this world – one whose passing not only leaves a hole in the lives of his loved ones but leaves the world a less colourful and interesting place to live. A great man is a man whose strength and courage is a source of inspiration; a man who, while far from perfect, sets certain standards that no one surviving him can hope to easily meet; a man who is unique. Ken Young was not only a great lawyer, he was a great man. May we remember him as both.
-Michael D. Sanders
Originally published by The Advocate in November, 2001