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Canada Michael Bryant’s second life: Once he wielded the power of the state, now he challenges it

Michael Bryant used to be Ontario's attorney-general, until he was accused in the death of Toronto cyclist Darcy Sheppard in 2009. The charges were ultimately dropped, but his political career was over. Now he is general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Michael Bryant knows the power of the state.

At 37, as Ontario’s youngest attorney-general, he wielded it. Five years later, out of politics, sitting in the back seat of a Toronto police car in the summer of 2009, he felt it – a juggernaut aimed directly at him.

“I saw what it felt like to be on the other side,” he says.

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The other side is his side now.

As general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) since last January, he fights the perceived excesses of state power. And as an author and public speaker, he sets out to help judges and lawyers understand what addiction means for the criminal-justice system – and shares his own struggle with alcoholism.

Almost a decade since his fall from grace, the 52-year-old says he has arrived at who he really is: a fighter for causes larger than himself but emanating from his experience.

Everything he was known for – ego, flair, personal ambition, a charmed life – is either gone or kept in check or no longer matters to him, he says in an interview over a coffee.

“When I was in government, there was an element of me playing a role. You’re on a pedestal, you’re in an office and you play the role of attorney-general. That was my job.”

So, is the civil libertarian who bares his struggles and humility in public simply another role?

No, he says, it is simply who he is.

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Mr. Bryant's observations in bail court have built on his experience of being charged in connection with Darcy Sheppard’s death. 'I learned primarily about the fear that overwhelms any individual who has been charged,' he says.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Sept. 7, 2009: A picture of Mr. Sheppard hangs in the spokes of a bicycle outside Toronto's Native Canadian Centre, where his father joined Indigenous leaders in a ceremony commemorating his son.

Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press

The event that altered his life – and ended the life of another – is well known. It happened on an August night in 2009 as Mr. Bryant, a father of two, went to dinner to celebrate his 12th wedding anniversary with his then-wife, Susan Abramovitch.

As they drove home, a cyclist, Darcy Sheppard, jumped on to the driver’s side of their car – a Saab convertible with the top down. The car swerved before coming to a stop on the wrong side of the road. When it started off again, Mr. Sheppard was leaning over Mr. Bryant when the cyclist bumped into a fire hydrant and fell off, striking his head, either on the curb or on a raised portion of asphalt. Toronto police charged Mr. Bryant with dangerous driving causing death and criminal negligence causing death.

But evidence presented in court showed Mr. Sheppard had been the instigator – he had a history of aggressive behaviour toward drivers, as recorded in video and still photos and recalled by several people who had been on the receiving end of his outbursts – and there was no evidence Mr. Bryant had been drinking, had driven on to the curb or was speeding. Lawyer Richard Peck, brought in as an independent prosecutor from British Columbia, dropped the charges in open court nine months later.

The legal case was over, but Mr. Bryant’s inner journey had just begun.

As he told it in his 2012 memoir, 28 Seconds: A True Story of Addiction, Tragedy and Hope, an epiphany came in the months after the death of Mr. Sheppard, at a downtown Toronto community centre, Sanctuary Ministries. There, he saw himself as someone volunteering to help the impoverished – until the revelatory moment he overheard organizers describing him as the one receiving the group’s charity. He suddenly felt he was being brought back to life – and to a connection with other human beings.

His private journey was the subject of a powerful TED Talk he gave this fall in Toronto.

“I, to change and to be useful, had to give up my idea of who I was, smash the self and get rid of all my old ideas, all the fears and prejudices and ego trips,” he said.

He also spoke of descending the ladder of supposed success, meeting “broken people” – and finding “the broken in me.”

The ladder is a guiding metaphor for Mr. Bryant. His grandfather was a labourer and city councillor in Esquimault, B.C.; his father, rungs higher, was a lawyer and mayor of the city; and Mr. Bryant in his turn was achievement-obsessed, earning four degrees.

His climb was steep and fast. After completing his master’s in law at Harvard (his dissertation was on aboriginal rights), he was elected at 33 as a Liberal MPP in Toronto and, four years later, was appointed Attorney-General. He banned pit bulls in Ontario and dealt with a controversial attempt to use Sharia law in the province.

But his glibness, his showmanship and his talent for drawing media attention did not always win him friends in his own party. He left the government after a decade in office, just two months before the encounter with Mr. Sheppard.

His descent into alcoholism began as a student and continued in his career. His memoir contains some uncomfortable personal scenes: In one, he is face down on the basement floor, unable to recognize his own home (this was while he was Attorney-General and nearing 40); in another, an ambulance attendant finds him unconscious in a bush when he was a university student in his early 20s. He sought treatment and stopped drinking in 2006, he says in the book.

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Last year he published a second book, Mere Addiction, aimed at judges and lawyers, who he has found have next to no knowledge of the health issue, producing disastrous results when courts set bail terms that are impossible for addicts to meet. The title is drawn from a C.S. Lewis book, Mere Christianity, on the fundamentals of the religion.

“I think we overdramatize addiction and I wanted to bring it down to earth,” he says. His goal is to “destigmatize it, to normalize it. It’s a tricky business because I constantly have to be questioning and getting advice from people in recovery on whether I’m speaking on something for the right reasons or the wrong reasons – the wrong reasons being the ego hits that come from getting attention.” He adds that ego, for him, is “something to be tamed.”

In his 2018 memoir Mere Addiction, Mr. Bryant set out to destigmatize substance abuse and address how it's treated by the legal system.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

His last job wasn’t a big ego boost. It came about because the people he met at Sanctuary often asked for help in court – help he initially refused to give.

“Eventually I saw I was ducking those [requests] because I was afraid to do it,” he says.

So, he became a duty counsel in Brampton, northwest of Toronto. Duty counsel are free, government-subsidized lawyers provided to accused people in immediate need – for instance, to secure bail.

He would meet his clients as they emerged behind Plexiglas in the prisoners’ box in courtrooms, sometimes in handcuffs or shackles. He would consult with them for a minute or two, get his instructions, then face the judge or justice of the peace – some of whom he had appointed.

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“He walked the walk in defending indigent people in bail court,” says lawyer Mahmud Jamal, a board member of the CCLA.

It was another pivotal experience. The system, Mr. Bryant felt, was “upside down,” so risk-averse when accused people are seeking bail that a majority of inmates in provincial jails are simply awaiting their trials rather than serving a sentence. “The system needs to be really broken down and blown up, and CCLA’s going to do that,” he says.

His observations in bail court built on his experience of being charged in Mr. Sheppard’s death.

“I learned primarily about the fear that overwhelms any individual who has been charged,” he says. The result is that people protect their short-term wishes, often pleading guilty to win release, at the expense of their long-term interests – a criminal record can certainly impede one’s ability to work or travel, he adds.

“Even though I had appointed so many judges and knew so many prosecutors and understood the charge that had been laid against me, I was terrified and felt as if the system was a juggernaut and I felt as if it was out to get me.”

In January, his organization will be in court arguing against the Ontario government’s revised sex-education curriculum, which the CCLA says discriminates against the LGBTQ community. It has also argued that the practice of solitary confinement in federal prisons should be ruled unconstitutional. The CCLA is increasingly bringing court challenges rather than simply intervening in cases brought by others.

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“The point of the CCLA,” Mr. Bryant says, “is that it fights for things that no government is ever going to do until it doesn’t have a choice.”

Never would he return to politics, Mr. Bryant says. He knows what happens to people with power – their ego takes over, he says, and they lose touch with what matters. (One thing he won’t bare for this article: his salary. But he says, “No sacrifice here.”)

The outreach worker who introduced him to Sanctuary Ministries is torn about Mr. Bryant’s future. “Is he capable of being seduced, like the rest of us, by power?” Jay Barton said in an interview. “One hundred and 50 per cent. But there’s a side of me that wants him to be really powerful again. Because if he gets really powerful again, I think he will do a lot of good.”

What the former attorney-general has learned he now feels compelled to share with authority figures in the legal system.

“It’s only in the material world that the ladder matters and you’re above or below anybody,” Mr. Bryant says. “I tell judges and JPs [justices of the peace] when I’m given the opportunity that they need to look at the person in the prisoners' box and on the witness stand as an equal.”

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