Jordan: Our guest today is one of maybe a handful of lawyers whose names would be recognized by Canadians far outside the legal profession. Clayton Ruby has represented clients from across the political spectrum, including the Church of Scientology, Canada’s first openly gay MP Svend Robinson, the anticapitalist magazine Ad Busters, and accused white supremacist Faith Goldy. He’s also been in the middle of memorable cases that include the court challenge that saw Toronto mayor Rob Ford ordered to vacate his office, as well as the fight to overturn the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin. There’s no shortage of high profile clients and cases to discuss with him, but that’s not why we’re talking to him today. What we want to discuss is a case that he worked on in 1988, in which he represented the family of a young man named Michael Wade Lawson. And though neither Ruby, nor the family, nor anyone else involved at the time knew it, it’s a case that has had a profound impact on how police forces in Canada’s largest province do and don’t hold themselves accountable even today. Michael Wade Lawson you see was 17 years old and he was a young Black man who was killed by the cops. And that’s where the story begins. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Clayton Ruby, I just introduced him, is an extremely notable lawyer based in Toronto. Hello Clayton.
Clayton Ruby: Hi.
Jordan: Can you tell us what you remember of what happened to Michael Wade Lawson 32 years ago?
Clayton Ruby: He was alleged to be stealing cars from a car lot for joy riding. And it was a fairly strong circumstantial case, he might’ve been convicted of it, might not. But the police received a tip that this was going on, and staked out one of his associates houses and waited to see if he showed up. He did. They got in front of the car and said, stop you’re under arrest. All fair enough. And he didn’t stop, this young Black kid panicked and he drove away. And he drove at least close to one of them. And again, that’s all fair too. He’s committing an offence, probably. Assault with a weapon, namely the automobile. But the nasty thing was that after he got past them, they opened fire on the rear of the car as he was going away. And they shot him in the back and killed him. Getting killed is not one of the penalties prescribed by the criminal code for joy riding. And it was clearly an overuse of force. And that was the impetus for saying, you know, we have to do something because the attorney general did nothing, the police force covered it up, and there was no justice for anyone, and the kid lies dead behind the wheel of a car.
Jordan: And how did you become involved?
Clayton Ruby: His mom came to me heartbroken at what had happened to her son. And we tried to get something done and we could not.
Jordan: What was the climate back then like for trying to hold police officers accountable?
Clayton Ruby: As bad as it is today and made worse by the fact that this was a kid and that he was a Black kid. Oh, with the icing on the cake of the officer’s claiming that he had tried to run them down with the car. No one was significantly injured, of course.
Jordan: So what came of that case in the larger picture? What happened after you couldn’t get justice specifically for Michael?
Clayton Ruby: There was a popular outcry, led by the black community, much as you’re seeing today. And in response, the government called for studies, devised a new body called the SIU to deal with complaints of excess use of violence by police. And of course, nothing happened.
Jordan: Can you tell me what you know from that time around the creation of the special investigations unit? You know, where it came from, why it was created?
Clayton Ruby: I think because prior to that, there was no centralized agency that specialized in crime or harm caused by police. So we farmed it out to the OPP, to the Brampton police. And they were inevitably not the slightest bit interested in producing a result. And the thought was that we had a unit dedicated to this particular task, respecting police officers who cause harm or committed crimes, we get a better result. We did not cope with the fact that judges and juries do not like committing police for trial or convicting them. And so the record is very close to zero in terms of successes. You can change that by hiring better people, you can improve it. More younger, more interesting, more committed officers investigating. Prosecutors who are better skilled than the ones we have. Because you can’t get a record that bad by accident. It’s a structural problem.
Jordan: Do you remember, back then, when you kind of first heard the report, after the public outcry and you heard this suggestion for the SIU, what, what did you think of it?
Clayton Ruby: I think I was sort of impressed by it. And it promised to be a full scale analysis with really obvious improvements. Why are we having police investigating police? It makes no sense. There’s no special skill for doing that. And the police are biased. They tend to see themselves being run down by the car, cause that’s the role they’re in. And so that was one of the changes. A dedicated unit out of the attorney General’s office promised to be impartial. That was a good improvement, cause it wasn’t any longer picking some other police force to do it. But what we learned was that none of that matters. That the SIU kept on covering up for police. I stress this: almost no investigations conclude that the police were at fault, and even smaller number, close to zero are cases where a criminal charge actually gets laid by the SIU. And when that happens, it’s an exceedingly rare event. In almost no cases does any charge ever stick. They have prosecutors. The prosecutors don’t seem to be able to bring in a conviction. Is this by accident? I don’t believe it’s by accident. I think it’s because they share a value system and they share a commitment to the way things are, to keep them the same as they are. But you could not produce this result by accident. It could only be by design.
Jordan: When you discuss cases like this one, and you know, I know that this one was a long time ago. There’s no shortage of them over the years. When you discuss them with other lawyers in the community, what are those discussions like? And is there any talk of how to take on that system? How the system could be better?
Clayton Ruby: Sure. In Ontario, we recently had a report done by a distinguished Black court of appeal judge. And he produced 104 recommendations for improving it. And the right wing Ford government in Ontario has enacted none of them. Why? Because they want things to remain the way they are. They don’t want police officers to be found guilty of anything. And frankly, the staff at that unit is quite happy with the state of affairs. Nobody quits their jobs. Nobody insists on having better tools or better prosecutors. No, government’s happy, the police are happy and the Black community feels they’re being shot down day by day. Well, they’re Black. Who cares?
Jordan: One of the reasons that I wanted to talk to you about this case in particular is because we were looking at the circumstances around the creation of the SIU. And I mean, as you kind of touched on, they seem identical to what’s happening today. And I wonder if there was ever any thought, back then, that that we’d end up in the same place.
Clayton Ruby: I at least had some confidence, that if we made some structural changes in the SIU and if the government would move and make it better, but we found that they go ahead and they make the changes by and large, not all of them by any means, the 104 outstanding ones are a little obvious, but they make some changes, but the results are the same every time. So, when I talk to a client, should you make a complaint to the SIU? My invariable advice is don’t be silly. It’s a fake organization. It’s just not real. All they do is they collect the evidence, and the evidence turns out to be used against you in some way. They’re are sieve, they leak. So anything you said that’s bad for you goes to the police for prosecution. They don’t work. And people, the government, are happy that it doesn’t work. It’s a public relations exercise. So we never go. We just don’t send the clients there. If you want to sue, you sue. But there’s no point in complaining that the SIU. It’s a fake organization.
Jordan: Is there anything that you think could have been done, back then at the beginning, to make the SIU more effective than it is today?
Clayton Ruby: Sure. The SIU is staffed by experienced detectives. And they are there because they displease someone. They go there to die and retire. And if they don’t rock the boat, no one will give them a hard time in their retirement. They remain good boys. So you really ought to be making the SIU a road to advancement. And if you do well in the SIU, you’d get promoted to something other than being an SIU officer. Because by and large, the police hate you if you’re an SIU. There’s no real grounds for that hatred. Cause they never do anything. But they do hate it nonetheless. That’s one thing. Let me back up just a bit. The SIU is doing exactly what government wants it to do. Nothing. You have to change government’s attitude. Any scheme could work if the people in red the message from government, this is important work and we want it to succeed. That message does not get sent.
Jordan: Do you think that there is more public will to push for change now than there’s been in the past? Is this movement different?
Clayton Ruby: No, it’s exactly the same in many ways. There was anger in the Black community. There’s a little more anger in the white community now than there was, but the vast majority of people respond to government. They don’t want an organization that works. They want one that looks like it’s working if you don’t look too closely.
Jordan: Would it have been easier to make those changes, you know, back when the SIU was founded, rather than try to change it today? Is there any possibility of changing it today?
Clayton Ruby: There is, but you have to take on the police union and the police forces. When you make it easier to prosecute them, they do things like they go on slow work. They cut back on what they’re doing. They make it– they demonstrate. They pressure government and they pressure their chief. The chiefs have relatively little power because the union and the force can make their lives just miserable, week after week after week. So, no, you have to actually change the attitudes, starting with the government. Then you have a chance of creating a unit that works.
Jordan: If the system isn’t working, as it was supposedly designed to do, could you maybe walk me through what you would do if I came to you or another client came to you saying, you know, I was stopped by the police and I was abused or I was assaulted or whatever, perhaps in the commission of a crime, perhaps not, but how do you, how do you work within the broken system then?
Clayton Ruby: Let me challenge your assumption. You’re assuming the system does not work like they wanted to do. It is working in exactly the way they want it to work. It is a fake. It was designed to be fake. And they do not want it to work. How can you make it work? My judgment is that you cannot. That’s why I never send a client to complain. I go to the civil courts with a lawsuit, cause there you get a fair break.
Jordan: So you wouldn’t even try, or you wouldn’t even advise a client to try for criminal accountability. You would just seek money in civil court.
Clayton Ruby: Right. Because if you’re relying on the SIU to prosecute, they never do it.
Jordan: How do families feel about hearing that? Like, that sounds terrible to hear from a really experienced lawyer.
Clayton Ruby: I think it disheartens them tremendously. And then you could talk about the other alternative, which is suing. Damages against the police force in Canada are tiny. The police just absorb the cost as the cost of doing business. So I’m telling you the stark reality, which is that there is no remedy. The present system does not work in any way that’s effective.
Jordan: It sounds like one of the more experienced trial lawyers in Ontario is saying the system needs to be torn down.
Clayton Ruby: I don’t even bother with the government like the one we’ve got, Mr. Ford, to talk about tearing down the system. Cause he’s not going to do it. He wants things to be this way. He would like it not to be a scandal, but he wants things not to change. So that’s the reality. There’s no point telling clients fantasies.
Jordan: So, what do you do then to fix it? And I don’t mean you, Clayton Ruby, but like what’s the solution to this?
Clayton Ruby: I think the solution is to work with political parties that want change, and to use the newspapers and the media to create an upswing needing change. That’s not impossible, but we’re nowhere near there at the moment.
Jordan: Who needs to get involved, aside from the people who are already in the streets, protesting?
Clayton Ruby: There’s no magic bullet like this. You really have to change a lot of minds at the top of society. And eventually my experience with social change is, I was involved in the civil rights movement in the sixties, you keep on pushing. You keep on pushing and you keep demanding what’s right. And eventually, years later you make a dent and things do change. But there’s no magic bullet. You just keep on pushing everywhere you can.
Jordan: You think we’ll still be having this conversation in 2030?
Clayton Ruby: It’s entirely likely.
Jordan: Wow. I hope that people like you keep pushing. I hope that we all keep pushing and that it’s not that way. Thank you so much for your time today, Clayton.
Clayton Ruby: I’ve enjoyed the conversation. Thanks.
Jordan: That was Clayton Ruby. And that was The Big Story. For more from us, you can find it thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us in your favourite podcast players, Apple, and Google, and Stitcher, and Spotify. You know the drill by now. Leave us a rating. Leave us a review. Tell your friends. You can also talk to us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. Or you can email us. We are at email@example.com. Claire Brassard is the lead producer on The Big Story. Ryan Clarke and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers. Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor and I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening. Have a great weekend and we’ll talk Monday.
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