Fish, Frances Lillian

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“Everyone called her Frank” was how one lawyer who had known her all his life remembered her.

The middle of five sisters, Frances Lilian Fish was an athletic, husky-voiced woman who played ice hockey into her mid-twenties. She never married, instead becoming a lifelong advocate for women, children and the disadvantaged and, in her later years, was famous for her tulip garden. A hard-working woman in a man’s profession and a man’s world, she practised law continuously for 40 years. She was Nova Scotia’s first female lawyer, and the first woman in the province to graduate with a law degree.

When Frances Fish was called to the Bar in September 1918 at age 29, the event made frontpage news in Halifax. Born in Newcastle (now Miramichi), New Brunswick, she and all four of her sisters were university educated. Three got degrees at the University of New Brunswick and the youngest – Ruth Foster Fish Davidson – also became a lawyer, in North Carolina, in 1930.

Upon graduating in classics from UNB in 1910, Frances went on scholarship to the University of Chicago, where she earned an MA. While teaching at the Grammar School in Campbellton in 1913, she became a student-at-law, only the third woman in New Brunswick to do so. In 1915 she came to Dalhousie Law School, where she received her LLB in 1918. That summer, she worked at what is now Burchells LLP, then with Robert Yeoman, a fellow Newcastle native who was counsel to the Halifax Relief Commission, which was set up in the aftermath of the 1917 Halifax Explosion.

Fish intended to settle here permanently, but it was not to be. At the law firm, she had been hired only to replace junior partner James Layton Ralston until he returned from overseas service. A.K. MacLean, MP and head of Burchells, found a post for her in Ottawa at the Department of Finance. She later joined the Canadian head office of Metropolitan Life, also in Ottawa, then went to Montreal, where her mother and sister were living. From 1918 to 1934, Fish did not practise law at all. Mystery surrounds her sudden and permanent departure from Halifax, which may have had something to do with a broken engagement.

After her father’s death in 1933, Fish moved back to Newcastle. Called to the New Brunswick Bar in 1934, she spent the rest of her life practising in her hometown, at first as a criminal lawyer before turning to divorce and family law. In the provincial election of 1935, Fish became the first woman to run for the New Brunswick legislature and ran for a federal seat that same year.

In 1947, Fish was appointed Deputy Magistrate for Northumberland County, holding the post until required to retire at age 75 in 1963, when she became a deputy judge of the Juvenile Court. Receiving her QC designation in 1972, she remained in practice until a few months before her death in October 1975. Frances Fish left few papers and fewer relatives, but a rich oral tradition remains; to this day her name is legend on the North Shore.

SOURCE: A short biography by Barry Cahill.

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