Emerging from hibernation, we need to move forward with the positives, reject the negatives
As June and hope are ushered in (and the Toronto Maple Leafs are ushered out), it may be time to start planning a COVID-19 controlled future.
As we emerge from this horrible hibernation, we need to recognize, appreciate, and perhaps carry forward the positives in our world and reject the negatives.
It takes half as long these days to read newspapers if you skip over the columns of complaints. The evening news is often like a basketball game. The last two minutes are enjoyable. The first eighteen minutes are negative, all about increased infections, finger-pointing, inadequate vaccines, vaccination rollout inequalities, and score sheets between provinces and countries.
COVID-19 was like an unexpected tsunami on a clear, calm day. No one is to blame for it. No one has a perfect response.
Our Prime Minister was not hoarding vaccines in his basement. Politicians are reacting and doing their best, some less effective than others - not unlike every leader in every country in the world.
Overall, however, heroic efforts and selfless dedication from the frontlines to the toplines have guided us through to a light now flickering at the end of the tunnel.
At some point, we will look back and measure the responders and responses and examine who rose to the occasion, adapted, and enhanced our world.
The legal profession will not be, nor should it be, immune from the assessments.
I recently read about how "laughter unleashed" has been so crucial to our mental health. I would add that music can do the same.
There is a lawyer in our midst who has reminded us of that, from day one of the pandemic.
Jonathan Rudin, the very busy, talented, and respected counsel with Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto, created and shared a “Plague Year Playlist.” Each day, for over four hundred days, he carefully selects and shares a different song that reflects the moment and provides a musical antidote, a “daily vaccine,” if you will.
On a different scale, the defence bar, right across the country, have been at the barricades protecting their clients, visiting the jails, collaboratively supporting the criminal justice system, at often significant personal costs and upheaval to their practices, livelihoods and health, with no control over their future. Abandoned offices and growing debt often accompany their work.
These frontline workers enhanced and protected the criminal justice system in a difficult time.
Technology and virtual justice zoomed in like a speeding train on which we desperately tried to hang on. We did adapt to conducting and participating in virtual hearings when available, seemingly seamlessly. They were lifelines for criminal justice, but they brought the seeds of complacency with them, which now need to be checked before the train is entirely out of reach.
We must never forget the fundamental importance of human connection. In-person hearings, whether it be preliminary hearings, trials, appeals, bail hearings, or basic motions before our courts, should remain the norm. Virtual hearings must be the exception, not the rule.
The efficiency altar and the demand for expediency will soon become the message of prioritizing politicians and administrations. We must resist and protect the critical dignity of personal engagement and proportionate response to the pressures and logjams that lay ahead.
The presence and involvement of the community and affected parties in our courtrooms must not be sacrificed. Technology should complement our judicial system but never control it.
Moreover, the emergence of virtual hearings has created a horrible decline in decorum, ritual and respect in our courtrooms, fundamental features of democracy. We need to reclaim that dignity.
From attire to attention, off-camera diversions, broken connections, shaken privacy and tenuous security, our cherished system risks becoming an irritant. It is up to all of us, especially our judicial officers, to lead and demand respect, decorum, and security.
Judges can and must lead the way, stepping out of their Judicial bubbles to communicate with the profession and especially the public.
In Ontario recently, the three Chief Justices, George Strathy of the Court of Appeal, Geoffrey B. Morawetz of the Superior Court and Lise Maisonneuve of the Ontario Court of Justice, appeared together on TVO’s public affairs program, The Agenda With Steve Paikin. They discussed the justice system, the courts, and the impact of COVID-19. It was a remarkable event that should be replicated in every province and region. We must continue to engage the public that we serve, especially now, when people rely on our institutions to support strength and stability.
These have been bewildering times in our lives. Nevertheless, our profession is one of problem solvers. We adapt and help others to do so. As we emerge back into our busy worlds and embrace the colleagues and mentors we have missed so much, our responsibilities are enormous. Beyond isolation, social distancing, and self-preservation, we will need to expand our concerns to confront injustices and unfairness in a new world.
As I write this column, our country is faced with an indescribable and horrible reality. We have allowed Indigenous children, snatched from their families, to be discarded and buried, seemingly forgotten. The messages of reconciliation have taken a back seat during COVID-19. Some may even have felt “enough already. No more!” We are dealing with an illness that must be confronted, treated, and healed forever. None of us are immune from the legacy of the residential schools.
Our profession can, and should, lead the way to deal with this finally. Tears are not enough.
Moreover, there are two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, still languishing in Chinese prisons because of transparent but deadly political games. As we emerge from our pandemic prisons, we must not forget them.
It is fascinating that we continue to engage, sign contracts, explore and expand commercial investments with and in China. What if the pens of Canadian lawyers hesitate at those contract closings, perhaps are even put down until the erosion of human rights and the lives of our citizens become a part of the boardroom agenda? The impact could be incredible.
We all came out of law school with a determination to change the world. COVID 19 has done that for us.
On June 6, 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. He was a hero, embodying hope for change for many.
One of his important messages was, “When the height is won, then there is ease.”
As the pandemic fades, our collective health may soon be restored. Nevertheless, that COVID slogan, “we are all in this together,” must never fade.