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The Globe and Mail

Michael Bryant and Darcy Allan Sheppard: victims of circumstance

"It is not a morality play about bikes versus cars, couriers versus drivers, or about class, privilege and politics."

- Michael Bryant

Well, in one aspect, I beg to differ. The story of the fatal confrontation between former Ontario attorney-general Michael Bryant and bicycle courier Darcy Allan Sheppard - from the violent 28 seconds on Toronto's Bloor Street that led to the death of the troubled cyclist, to the dismissal this week of all criminal charges against Mr. Bryant - is all about privilege. But not in the way you might think.

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It's not about the clichéd privilege of pinstriped inner-sanctum politics, about highly polished professional people out in their top-down Saab on a late summer evening, or even about who ya gonna call after the fall - when you find yourself in the back of a police cruiser, or as Mr. Bryant ruefully put it during a press conference: "I now have a unique perspective [on the legal system]from its highest pedestal as attorney-general, to its pillory, as a defendant cuffed in the back of a squad car, accused of two very serious offences involving the tragic death of a man."

It's about the privilege of birth, about the circumstances we are born into, and which shape our lives and our destinies. A privilege that many of us take for granted. The truth is that however much we may love the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches scenario, how we start out in life determines in many cases who we become. I will never forget the humbling words of the late activist June Callwood, who once wryly commented that it is merely the luck of the draw whether a child is born into "a sun-filled home in Riverdale" or the most disastrous poverty-filled circumstances.

Given that my husband and I raised our children in such a sun-filled house, her words hit home when I first heard her utter them during a plea to end child poverty. They filled me with both gratitude and unease. And I was reminded of them this week as I reflected on the often miserable circumstances of the life of Darcy Allan Sheppard, dead at 33: his alleged fetal alcohol syndrome, his 30 foster homes, his anger and addiction problems. These details don't absolve him (evidence has shown he was the aggressor), but they help us understand him.

Much has been made of the extraordinary informational twists and turns involved in this tragic case, which included an initial Bonfire of the Vanities spin: reputedly arrogant former politician on an expensive night out versus humble but likeable bike courier (father and aspiring comedian!) just trying to get through the city streets.

Fuelled by the best spin doctors money can buy, the story began turning slowly, like a big ship on a dark night. Mr. Bryant and his lawyer wife Susan Abramovitch, out celebrating their 12th wedding anniversary, had enjoyed only a modest dinner with no alcohol, and through no fault of their own, had come into contact with an enraged cyclist who had been repeatedly aggressive and out of control, and had even been picked up drunk by police earlier in the evening. Moreover, the courier's past was unsavoury, with a slew of fraud charges pending against him in his native Alberta. He was "an erratic figure with a history of alcohol problems," stated one media report.

Mr. Sheppard's fellow cyclists, meanwhile, tried desperately to keep the focus on the battle between cars and bikes, maintaining that his troubled past was, as one put it, "irrelevant to what happened that night."

Nonsense. For me it seems entirely relevant. One of the most poignant comments, on Facebook, came from a friend of Mr. Sheppard's girlfriend, who said that Mr. Sheppard had once been homeless but had "climbed out of that scene and tried to become someone." Other friends were quoted in the media saying he had "had a bad month" or needed to go back to rehab; he seemed to be caught in a dreary cycle of trying and failing to turn things around, which no doubt fuelled his anger.

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Michael Bryant, 44, tried to become someone too - only he started from a vastly different place and he eminently succeeded. The son of a B.C. politician, he has an awe-inspiring résumé: Osgoode Hall, silver medalist of his year, Harvard University, Fulbright Scholar, youngest-ever Ontario attorney-general. It was for people like him that the term "the best and the brightest" was invented.

And somehow, fate saw to it that these two human beings from very different backgrounds clashed on a summer night. One died, and one was absolved of all responsibility, even though in a panicked effort to protect himself and his wife, he put his foot on the gas. He will have to live with that night for the rest of this life.

In its randomness and its violence it is a shocking story to be sure. But it is still a story about "where Darcy Allan Sheppard came from, and the circumstances of his life," says Eleanor McMahon, who founded the Share the Road Cycling Coalition after her policeman husband Greg was killed on his bicycle.

Why should we care about Mr. Sheppard's troubled past? He no doubt had more than a few chances to fix what was wrong with himself and his life and he didn't get there. Not to "demonize" him, as the independent prosecutor emphasized, but he clearly caused his own death. Except, so did poverty, addiction, familial instability and mental illness. Being disadvantaged and addicted isn't just an individual's decision - it's society's issue too.

Look at it this way: Every day, we're all out there on the roads together, navigating the same space, jostling for position, having a few close calls but assuming we will make it home alive. If it's not our own troubled backgrounds that prevent us from doing so, it may be someone else's.

You might call it the luck of the draw.

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