Lessons From the Shore

What an ocean respite told me about change, the lessons of COVID-19, and social movements

Bill Trudell

The kindness and generosity of wonderful friends has allowed me the opportunity to sit by the North Atlantic and write this column. The ocean can teach us so very much. The steady, persistent, peaceful rhythm of the waves lapping the shore centres us and invites us to think about the blessings of our lives. It also reminds us that nature can be very different, its waves wild, crashing and violent.

Sitting by the sea has allowed me the space to contemplate the extraordinary events of the past few months and the lessons they reveal. The adherence to social distancing, the wearing of masks, respect for public health, government assistance, and scientists united in search of a cure have been remarkable.

COVID-19 has also brought positive change. Many have been forced, by circumstances, to demand or to need less, to rely on family and to cherish close friends. Respect for doctors and nurses, and trust in their care, is strong. Parents have become teachers at home: adventurers in learning with their children.

In criminal justice, the impressive surge in pro bono help in bail hearings, reversing unnecessary detentions, shining a light on the needs of the unrepresented and the unclogging of the courts has had a vital impact on the functioning of the judicial system. Moreover, with closed courtrooms and an uncertain future, there has been a tsunami of collaboration including the judiciary, the Crown, defence counsel, police, administrators, government and correctional representatives all at the same planning table.

We in the legal profession have debated technological change to a standstill for at least eight years. Since the pandemic erupted its implementation has unfolded in about eight weeks and a sea change has been the result.

Over 20,000 people watched by way of YouTube Justice Joseph Di Luca deliver a judgment in a high-profile Ontario case. But technological change has not only overtaken our courts but our doctors’ offices, hospitals, schools and businesses in general. A new world has washed ashore, the landscape altered forever.

Nothing will be the same. Complacency is drowning and an enlightened way forward surrounds us as our world re-navigates its course.

The Black Lives Matter movement has arrived and it is about time. It has taught us so much about inclusiveness and opened our eyes to racial injustice.

Yet dark waves have arrived on our shores —  created not by nature but by us. These waves are dangerous and often promote fear and insecurity and erode freedoms of movement, of speech, and thought. Our shores have been infected by more than one pandemic. A virus has emerged of correctness of thought and speech, of “cancel culture,” intolerance, hateful misuse of cyberspace, and peaceful protests suppressed with brute force. Legitimate movements have been infiltrated by violent fringe elements: some racist, some anti-Jewish, some science deniers, and some promoting anarchy and mistrust.

Too many dark waves threaten to deface, degrade or destroy statues of historical figures, some worthy heroes with tragic flaws. History risks not only being rewritten or revised, but greatly diminished. Will Canadian classrooms of the future turn to a blank page when they seek to understand how the country was settled, how the nation was realized, or how a railway brought us together?

Sir John A. McDonald was an integral part of Canadian history. His ploughing through Indigenous communities to promote his dream is unforgiveable, but his legacy is also unforgettable for the good, when viewed though a balanced lens.

Sir Winston Churchill, who saved Europe and North America from the scourge of Nazism, has been criticized and his statues defaced because of his Imperialistic disdain and treatment of non-white colonies, especially India.

Abraham Lincoln’s views of slavery evolved. Are we to cover up his monument because he was flawed?

Cecil Rhodes may have supported the basis for the apartheid system in South Africa, and yet the scholarships in his name allow for the examination of its inherent injustice.

We learn from our mistakes. I have often felt that the mantra of every defence counsel should have universal application: ‘”every person is more than their worst mistake.”

We must not judge the past through the lens of the present. A careful study of history tells us that slavery did not exist only for Blacks in the Confederate United States. Indeed, slavery was part of the early fabric of what later became Canada: in wealthy homes and institutions, by church missionaries, and even in Indigenous societies that took prisoners of war.

 Moreover, we have arrived at a moment in history where we must understand that slavery has existed along the shores of humanity since before recorded time. The sea of injustice that followed in its wake is what we are all charged to address at this moment in time.

Awareness of our history and confronting all forms of racism is vital to securing an inclusive and peaceful democracy. Nevertheless, we must not be afraid to suggest that any movement may go too far. Any movement may be infiltrated by splinter groups with darker agendas, or risk throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

COVID-19 has forced us to examine our lives. The early message to confront the COVID-19 wave was that we are all in this together. The vast ocean reminds us of that.

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