UVic Law Class of 1981 celebrates 40 years of success


By Ivan Watson

Rob Lapper remembers a time when his law classes were scattered in makeshift rooms in a building behind the MacPherson library. “Faculty offices were all kind of crowded together over there. There was a student lounge at one end, and an entry way at the other end, and a hallway in between,” he recalls. “You had to actually walk through the bathrooms to get to the student lounge.”

Lapper began studying law at UVic in 1978, and two years into his degree, the new purpose-built law building opened its doors, providing a dedicated home for the UVic law faculty on campus. “Ours was the first class to graduate from this new building, the Fraser building, and it still seems to me to be this modern, state of the art building.”

When he and his cohort graduated in 1981, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was still one year away. “We knew it was coming,” he says. “But our constitutional law classes were almost entirely about the division of powers, with some discussion on the Bill of Rights.”

Much has changed in the four decades since. On Friday, April 29 and Saturday, April 30, Lapper’s peers from the class of 1981 gathered for their 40th anniversary class reunion (delayed one year due to the pandemic). It proved to be a weekend to remember with a reception at the law school on Friday evening that featured a welcome speech from former Dean Bill Nielson, followed by a full day of activities on Saturday including a tour of the B.C. Legislature by Global News reporter Richard Zussman (whose mother Sheridan Scott is a member of the 1981 class and part of the reunion organizing committee), a special presentation by Interim Dean Val Napoleon on the JD/JID program and plans for the new National Centre for Indigenous Laws, and a Saturday evening reception and dinner that included remarks from Anne Fraser, spouse of founding Dean, the late Murray Fraser.  

The Murray and Anne Fraser building honours their partnership which was fundamental to the successful beginning of the law school.

“Our alumni have made incredible contributions to the legal landscape in Canada and beyond,” says Interim Dean Val Napoleon. “It was wonderful to meet and welcome back so many graduates of the class of 1981 and to learn about how their UVic law degree has been instrumental in their lives and careers. Listening to their stories, it struck me just how proud they’ve always been of their UVic law education, and how proud we are of them and all they’ve accomplished!”

After earning his law degree in 1981, Lapper worked for several years in private practice before joining the B.C. Government in 1994 as counsel to its then new treaty negotiation process, and was later appointed Senior Counsel, Aboriginal Law. He subsequently served in senior executive positions including Assistant Deputy Attorney General - Legal Services, Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Relations, Deputy Cabinet Secretary, and Deputy Minister of Labour, Citizens' Services, and Open Government. In 2012, Lapper moved to Toronto to take up the position as Chief Executive Officer of the Law Society of Ontario, before returning to his home province in 2018, and to UVic law where he teaches as part of the faculty team.

“It was a great education, it was an absolutely great education,” he says, recalling his law student days. “It was a brand new law school, in existence about five years at the time. The founding Dean Murray Fraser had pulled together some really interesting talent from across the country. If you look at our class, so many have gone on to distinguished careers in a variety of legal areas. UVic law really prepared us to take on the world.”

Lapper notes that although so much has changed in terms of law and society since he was a law student, some essential elements of the UVic law education have remained the same.

“40 years later I come back here and I still see students being very supportive of each other, being genuinely interested in each other’s success and there’s this general sense that we’re in this together,” he says. “UVic law in particular has always had this orientation towards social justice, a willingness to embrace social issues and an atmosphere of collegiality and respect.”

His advice to today’s law students? “Be courageous with your career, and don’t be afraid of change,” he says.