Expert in maritime law foresaw Arctic disputes

Richard Watts
Times Colonist


Saturday, May 13, 2006


According to his friends, he could neither sail a boat nor swim a stroke.

But law professor Doug Millar Johnston, whose academic career took him far beyond his native Scotland to include stints at Yale, McGill, Dalhousie, Toronto and finally the University of Victoria, still became one of the world's top experts in maritime and international law.

Johnston died on May 6 from prostate cancer at age 75. A memorial is scheduled for today at 1 p.m. at UVic's University Club.

According to UVic law professor Ted McDorman, a 30-year-friend of Johnston, a past former student and colleague in international law, his old teacher was something of a walking irony. Johnston couldn't swim despite his specialty looking in the law of the seas and international law.

McDorman (another non-swimmer) said he and his friend found themselves at seaside resorts for several conferences discussing maritime issues. The off-work moments offered fine snorkelling, diving or sailing.

But the two maritime experts always had to pass.

"We were always stuck on the beach," said McDorman.

Joking aside, he said Johnston had an unusual mind that was rarely satisfied with single, straight-line analysis.

He was known for seeing every issue in terms of its possibilities and underlying concepts.

This thought process allowed Johnston to identify upcoming issues of concern long before they reached the front pages of newspapers.

For example, Johnston early on recognized Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic might be disputed.

This, even before 1969 when the American ship SS Manhattan, an ice-breaking tanker, sailed through the Northwest Passage testing the route as a possibility for transporting oil.

Johnston also had an early degree in Chinese studies.

He was the founding chair of Asia Pacific Relations at UVic. And that had him talking of the rise of China's importance in the world long before that country had reached its present significance.

Johnston's books, and he wrote over 30, were all forward-looking, examining emergent trends.

The exception was his last, the one he just finished before he died. It was a history of international law, written for educated or interested people, rather than specialists in the field.

Bill Neilson, UVic Dean of Law from 1985 to 1990 and another longtime friend, described Johnston as a wonderful scholar and a hugely engaging teacher who inspired a number of graduates who are now themselves prominent in the field of international law.

Noting Johnston's first job in Canada upon arriving from Scotland in 1955 was as an executive trainee at Eaton's, Neilson said the world of ideas owes a debt to Johnston's subsequent lack of interest in retail.

"Thank God he didn't end up staying on at Eaton's," said Neilson. "I'm sure he was always far more interested in ideas than sales figures."

Obituary of Doug Millar Johnston.

Times Colonist (Victoria) 2006