A decade after a deadly incident involving my son Darcy Allan Sheppard, the former attorney general knows how to get attention for his journey of redemption
The August 2019 edition of Canadian Lawyer magazine has named Michael Bryant one of the year’s 25 most influential lawyers.
The list is more a popularity contest than an objective assessment. Lawyers nominate, then vote for, colleagues. The national pool of influential lawyers is deep enough to have produced equally or more qualified candidates.
But Bryant, a former attorney general who currently serves as executive director and chief counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, knows how to get attention and how to curry influence with powerful people. He has done it successfully for decades.
In a Toronto TEDx talk last October, Bryant described a time toward the end of his carefully managed climb from devastation following a 2009 incident on Bloor West involving my son Darcy Allan Sheppard that left Bryant facing charges of criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving causing death. Those charges were eventually dropped nine months later.
But the dropping of charges, which was interpreted by many in the legal and media communities as vindication of Bryant, did not relieve the sense of injustice and despair that Bryant says he felt in the aftermath. He embarked on a decade-long journey of redemption with the help of Toronto’s Sanctuary Ministries.
According to Bryant’s TEDx talk, an Indigenous member of the Sanctuary community, a man he calls Craig, asked Bryant to help him through a court appearance a few years ago. Though Bryant says he was reluctant, he agreed. The outcome surprised him, as he shared in the talk.
“He (Craig) gave me this gift. Of all the dozens of criminal lawyers that were in that building, he decided to trust the one with the least experience but the most to gain. Since then I’ve done hundreds of bail hearings and criminal proceedings for guys just like Craig. Far from being atop the justice system as attorney general on an unreal pedestal.”
The experience, according to Bryant, was transformative.
“Finally, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I was in the trenches being useful.”
Which invites an obligatory question: Why, then, did Bryant abandon helping a community of underprivileged people in need of assistance before the courts? Why did he stop a useful activity that he found so affirming and rewarding?
Bryant’s answer falls flat.
“I continue to do that work today in the Canadian Civil Liberties Association,” he said.
Toiling in the fields of policy and advocacy is important and necessary work, but it is in no way like working in the trenches of the justice system.
And how are we to take the knowledge that, several months after the Doug Ford government announced drastic cuts to the Ontario legal aid system, Bryant and the CCLA have said and apparently done nothing to object, or advocate restoration or, even better, an increase to legal-aid funding.
Legal aid is different from the work of duty counsels that briefly engaged Bryant, but both exist to serve the Craigs of society, whom Bryant professes to have learned to love and respect.
Bryant admits he had much to gain from helping Craig and those who came after him. His reward was access to a position where he could be influential, rather than merely useful. Influence is not as exciting or aggrandizing as power, but it has its perks, especially when a return to political office seems unlikely.
To be or not to be: Useful? Or influential?
Bryant faced that choice. Perhaps he approached his decision unconsciously, but I believe he did it deliberately. And in making his choice he betrayed whatever was left of his best instincts.
Whatever the case, an important question remains: who is now helping Craig and others at the bottom of the Ontario legal system?
Allan Sheppard lives in Edmonton. He is in Toronto to take part in the 10th annual memorial gathering for his son, Darcy Allan on August 31.