Victoria immigration and refugee lawyer Peter Golden is being remembered as a quiet leader and a fierce and loyal advocate for people fleeing hardship and danger.
“He was a very special person,” said Marlene Tyshynski, a former colleague, on Friday.
“A person like that gives all of us hope. There’s so much to be discouraged about these days. Peter was a dedicated, selfless person — and fun.”
Despite being diagnosed with lung cancer in November 2016, Golden continued to help his clients. He died at home on July 31, surrounded by his family, at the age of 65.
“He didn’t let the cancer stop him,” said his daughter Darcy Golden, who has followed in her father’s footsteps. “He narrowed his activities but continued to do things that were important.”
Golden was born in Ottawa where his father, David, was a senior civil servant. He married Charlotte Bell in 1978 and the two moved to Victoria in 1980, where daughters Julia and Darcy were born. His last years were blessed by the arrival of three grandchildren.
Social justice was woven into the fabric of his life. At 20, Golden was working with the Canadian labour movement, establishing unions on the West Coast. In the 1980s, he did international work, monitoring elections in Mexico and El Salvador and promoting international human rights in his support for Coca-Cola workers and union organizers in Guatemala.
“Even when we travelled as a family, we brought things to leave behind or delivered money to a cause,” said Darcy, recalling trips to Cuba and El Salvador. “He always took the opportunity when he was somewhere to make it more than a holiday.”
Because of his life experience, Golden was accepted into McGill law school as a mature student, without an undergraduate degree. He graduated in 1991 with degrees in both civil and common law, receiving the Scarlet Key award for leadership.
Golden moved back to Victoria, using his law practice to further his commitment to social justice.
Tyshynski shared an office with Golden in the 1990s.
“We had a very similar practice, a lot of refugee law. Peter would regularly ask to me cover his practice when he went to Central America,” Tyshynski said.
“What stands out for me, what happened almost every time, the Justice Department would try to deport one of his clients and I would end up having to make an emergency application for a stay before the federal court. It was a joke between us.
“The minute he left Canada, they’d try to deport someone.”
Tyshynski and Golden worked together to help the four boatloads of Chinese migrants who arrived on Canadian shores in 1999.
When the first boat arrived, Jim Redmond, director of Citizenship and Immigration, asked Golden to put together a team of immigration lawyers and interpreters.
“When we did the first group, everyone was treated incredibly politely. The refugee claimants were sitting and had a translator. We were allowed to talk to them and tell them their rights,” Tyshynski said.
“Ultimately, we were put in a trailer, caged in, and the clients were brought out to us.”
Golden organized lawyers to provide legal services to all 590 refugees.
“He was an excellent leader. He wasn’t bossy or loud. He had a great quiet leadership,” Tyshynski said.
She also recalled frantically preparing federal court applications to assist detained Chinese migrant women with Golden and their two families on a weekend.
“We were doing document-assembly like crazy people. When we phoned the courier, he said we were too late. So Peter and I put all his boxes in one of our cars and drove them ourselves to Vancouver,” she said.
“You should have seen the looks on the clerks’ faces when we brought in 55 applications at the last minute. We went out and had a celebratory dinner at a Taste of India, clinking glasses. We were very proud of ourselves.”
Golden used his intellect and profession to save lives and make a world better place, said Carlos Flores, who met Golden in the early 1980s.
“We engaged in very interesting conversations about social issues,” said the Chilean native. “It was something I haven’t encountered in Canada for a long time. Later, when he became a lawyer, he was very practical in his commitment to social justice. His testimony was concise and convincing. I know friends and comrades that would not be alive today.”
Golden put his own life at risk helping the Coca-Cola workers and was threatened while in Guatemala City, Flores said.
“He put into practice what he preached and that gained my respect.”
The walls at Golden’s office were paper-thin and laughter was frequently heard from behind his closed door, Darcy said.
“No matter how sad a story somebody had when they were meeting him, they would be laughing by the time they left,” she said. “He liked to joke. He was very sarcastic, but his clients seemed to really like it.”
Despite being a lawyer and a professional, Golden remained an activist. He participated in rallies and marches for social justice on the streets of Victoria. On June 27, Golden attended the last meeting of the Central America Support Committee, chatting and listening to Guatemalan speakers and watching a movie.
Golden was a founding member of the Central America Support Committee and a founding member of the Victoria Coalition for Survivors of Torture. He was a panel member and speaker at the International Academy of Law and Mental Health Conference, where he opposed Canada’s cuts to refugee health care.
He was awarded the Legal Services Society Chair’s Award for Distinguished Service.
A celebration of Golden’s life will be held at the Delta Ocean Pointe on Sept. 2 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. The program begins at 3:30 p.m. To help others continue his legacy, family and friends have established the Peter Golden Social Justice Fund at the Victoria Foundation.