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Rocco Galati (Rachel Idzerda For The Globe and Mail)
Rocco Galati (Rachel Idzerda For The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

The lawyer who challenged the Harper government and won Add to ...

Wherever I’ve gone this year in Canada, lawyers are talking about Rocco Galati. What’s Rocco going to do next? If the Prime Minister tries any funny business with the courts, Rocco will stop him. Rocco won’t sit by …

It’s as if Mr. Galati, the Toronto lawyer who brought grief to the Conservative government, has been designated the Unofficial Opposition. He’s the first person ever to challenge a Prime Minister’s appointment of a Supreme Court judge. And he won. All the resources Stephen Harper and his government could bring to bear, and this upstart spending $42,000 of his own money won the case. And he’s not done.

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Canada’s Unofficial Opposition is eating a tuna salad, washed down with red wine (a Negroamaro, an earthy wine from Friuli), at an outdoor patio on College Street in Toronto’s Little Italy, just down the street from the three-storey house he has turned into an office for his small law firm.

The government never thought someone named Galati could defeat it, he says.

“They were so arrogant in assuming that an argument from me couldn’t win or shouldn’t win, because we live in a tribal culture. You’re only an expert if you’re anglo or francophone.… That’s been made clear to me for 26 years. I’d put my win ratio in impossible cases up against anybody’s, yet I’m still ridiculed when I bring a challenge. How does that work?”

But the real question is – why him? Why not someone else in this country of lawyers?

Mr. Galati and I have a lot to talk about. We have so much to talk about that the batteries in my tape recorder run out of juice. Mr. Galati, an amiable provocateur, goes across the street to buy me new ones.

Snazzy in a beige linen suit with a striped shirt and grey-patterned tie (only the open-toed sandals hint at non-conformity), the 55-year-old comes from a world far from Ottawa’s Wellington Street, where the Supreme Court and the Parliament buildings sit in a majestic row. He and his 12 siblings were born in Calabria, in southern Italy. Five of them died in early childhood. His father, a farmer, was court-martialled twice and interned because he didn’t want to fight in Mussolini’s army.

“He always told me the fascists don’t come marching in overnight. It’s a slow march.”

His father came to Toronto in 1965, found work in construction, and brought the family over a year later. Only three of the children received any formal education, Mr. Galati says. But that includes a brother who, though he had only two years of public schooling, went to the University of Toronto as a mature student and became a lawyer.

“Because of my sense of history, I don’t like the idea of injustice. Growing up in Toronto was no picnic in the sixties and seventies. It was a very brutal, racist environment. The police were enforcing wartime regulations. On College Street, up until Trudeau rewrote the loitering laws, more than two Italian males could not congregate. They’d get billy-sticked home by the police.”

Although he is Catholic, he says his family was Jewish, on both sides, at one time. (When I first met him at his office, he showed me his late grandfather’s Argentine identification document from 1918, framed on the wall. It has a Star of David on it.) He says most people don’t realize how many Jews (and Muslims) used to live in Calabria, or about the violence used to kill or convert them in previous centuries. It’s a recurrent theme of his – the loss of historical memory.

A fighter for long shots, he was a long shot himself. He says he was once assessed in school as intellectually handicapped, and it was only through the efforts of an English teacher at his technical high school, who recognized his perceptiveness in Shakespeare studies, that he was able to go to an academic school for Grade 13.

Bob Dylan saved him from life as an electroplater. He quit his job to move to Montreal to learn to read the poet Arthur Rimbaud in French; he came to Rimbaud knowing that he had influenced Bob Dylan.

“He was not very popular in his early years. That was to my liking – this guy stands on what he believes.”

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