Vaughan Baird

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Vaughan Lawson Baird

Born: September 6, 1927 (Winnipeg)
Died: August 17, 2013 (Ste-Agathe, Man.)

Member:
Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame (1984)
Order of Canada (1992)

Few sports have had an advocate as passionate, dedicated and pugnacious as diving had in Vaughan Baird.

The Winnipeg lawyer, who had been a competitive diver at university, led a campaign to hive divers away from the auspices of swimming, under which they were distinctly second-class citizens.

In looking back at the schism, Baird cited an instance from 1934 when the swimming body struck Winnipeg diver Judy Moss from Canada’s British Empire Games team in favour of yet another swimmer. Her supporters in Winnipeg managed to raise the $300 in the midst of the Depression to send her to London, England. “She won the gold medal on the three-metre board,” Baird told the Winnipeg Free Press three years ago, “and swimming ended up with egg on its face.” The insult rankled even more than seven decades later.

Baird founded the Canadian Amateur Diving Association (now Diving Canada) in 1968. He also founded the Aquatic Hall of Fame and Museum, which was located at the Pan Am Pool in Winnipeg until a dispute over security of the items led to a bitter and protracted legal battle between Baird and the city.

Vaughan Lawson Baird was born in Winnipeg in 1927 to Elsie Katherine (née Lawson) and Samuel Garnet Baird, both of whom were born in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia. Vaughan was the fifth of six children and the youngest of four sons. The brother closest to him in age, Jack Douglas Baird, was a navigator and bombardier with the Royal Canadian Air Force who died overseas on Dec. 6, 1944. Jack Baird, a flying officer, was 20. One brother served in the RCAF as a squadron leader, while the other served in the naval reserve.

Baird attended the University of Manitoba, where he won the school’s diving title as well as becoming provincial champion. He graduated in 1949, then moved to his parents’ home province to attend Dalhousie University, where he boxed before graduating with a law degree in 1952. He was admitted to the Nova Scotia bar later that year. Post-graduate studies at the Sorbonne in Paris left him with a lifelong appreciation for art and history, as well as a proficiency in the French language. After returning to Manitoba to practice law, he took part in occasional diving exhibitions including performances at what is now known as the Red River Ex.

He was named a diving judge for the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica in 1966, the beginning of several years service as a judge and administrator of his favourite sport. He judged at the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, Pan American Games, and world aquatic championships until 1990. As chef de mission for Canada’s national diving team, he travelled behind the Iron Curtain, where he was shocked as a Christian by the sight of a church converted into an aquatic centre, the divers leaping from platforms built over the alter into a watery nave.

Baird served as a member of the Canadian Olympic Association, the Commonwealth Games Association of Canada, the Amateur Swimming Association of the Americas, and the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), the international governing body for aquatic sports.

The outspoken lawyer worked on committees organizing the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg in Canada’s centennial year of 1967. His forceful campaign embarrassed the federal government into contributing enough money to build an enclosed pool for the games. Without a roof, Baird argued, the facility would offer only 45 days per year of outdoor swimming and, with the prairie city’s notorious winds, only 15 days of world-class diving.

“It will be the finest pool of its type in Winnipeg and among the best in the world,” Baird said. He promised the $2.6-million facility would make the Manitoba capital a mecca for aquatic sports. Never limiting his sporting ambitions, he thought the pool would also be a landmark for a future bid for the city to become the first Canadian centre to host the Olympic Games.

He also helped found the Manitoba Sports Federation, as well as its sustaining lottery, which is now the Western Canada Lottery Corporation.

Away from the pool, the lawyer. appointed to Queen’s Counsel in 1966, handled several high-profile cases, most notably championing Franco-Manitoban language rights in a case involving the son of a friend who received a speeding ticket in English only. Baird argued all provincial laws had to be published in English and French under Section 23 of the Manitoba Act of 1870, a requirement ignored for decades. The case of Bilodeau v. Attorney-General of Manitoba began in 1980, the same year in which Quebec held its first independence referendum, contributing to a national sense of constitutional crisis.

Baird argued the case before the Supreme Court of Canada in 1984, returning for an additional special hearing in 1991. In the end, Manitoba’s laws wound up being translated into Canada’s other official language.

In a separate case, he served as a defence lawyer in the first French-only trial to have been held in Manitoba in nearly a century.

The bilingual francophile was a troublesome figure for premier Sterling Lyon, a fellow progressive Conservative who once defeated Baird in a nominating contest for the provincial seat of Fort Garry.

Baird served as an executive for the provincial Conservatives. In 1967, he backed the federal leadership bid of fellow lawyer E. Davie Fulton, of Kamloops, B.C., who wound up finishing third behind Manitoba’s own Duff Roblin and the winner, Robert Stanfield of Nova Scotia.

Baird ran for a seat in the House of Commons in 1968, finishing third in the constituency of St. Boniface behind a New Democrat and a successful Liberal in the Trudeaumania sweep.

An art collector, Baird wrote short studies of the noted Manitoba sculptors Cecil Clarence Richards and Marguerite Taylor, as well as “A Canadian History of the Art and Sport of Diving.” All three titles were privately printed.

Three years ago, the Pan Am Diving Club at the Winnipeg pool renamed its annual winter invitational meet the Vaughan Baird Polar Bear Classic.

Baird sued the city for $2 million for the eviction of his beloved museum he founded from the pool his lobbying had built. He made provisions for the case to proceed even after his death.

He was predeceased by a sister and three brothers, and leaves a sister, Elsie Hughes. He never married. He died on Aug. 17 at his home, named Bel-Ami, in Ste-Agathe, a rural francophone community south of Winnipeg along the Red River, in which he swam all his life.

In 1961, two Canadian Army deserters tried to steal Baird’s car from his home, only to run it into a ditch. They then held Baird hostage for several hours, drinking his liquor and threatening him with death, until the slick-talking lawyer convinced them to surrender after five hours. The men were sentenced to seven years in jail. The news made the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press and Baird wrote his own dramatic account for Maclean’s magazine.

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