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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Morality play and a stampede to judgment Add to ...

We love a good morality play. And what a plot this one has - a tragic encounter between a lowly bicycle courier and a privileged, ambitious, cocky big-shot in a fancy car. A moment of road rage, a dead man, a career in ruins - what could be better? Especially when the setting is Toronto's Yorkville, or "tony" Yorkville, as it is invariably known.

I wasn't around when the Michael Bryant story broke last week. But even at a distance, I caught the early rumours. It was night, there was booze, a woman in the car. Wow! This could be another Chappaquiddick! Indeed, Mr. Bryant had scarcely changed into a clean suit (bad move) before people were writing his political obituary.

But the plot was full of holes. For starters, Mr. Bryant isn't really such a big shot (although you wouldn't know that from the screaming headlines). He's a former cabinet minister in Ontario's Liberal government, and his political career was stalled. Before this, not one in 10 people could have told you who he was. On the night of the accident, he was celebrating an anniversary with his wife. They had a couple of chicken shawarmas and took a walk. They drank water. Even the fancy Saab convertible was second-hand. He got it for $5,000.

It was the cyclist who, according to a witness, was "drunk as a clunk." The cops were called to remove Darcy Allan Sheppard from his girlfriend's place earlier that evening. One bystander says he got off his bike and tackled the car (the top was down), at which point it veered off with him attached to its side. What exactly happened is for the court to figure out, but it's certainly conceivable that if Mr. Sheppard hadn't died, he might have been charged himself.

Mr. Sheppard, a troubled soul who faced numerous criminal charges in his home province of Alberta, was perhaps not the best choice as a martyr for beleaguered cyclists. (In fact, if he'd stayed on his bike, he'd be alive today.) But cycling vigilantes didn't let that deter them. They held a protest and shut down Bloor Street. They turned the death scene into a shrine, complete with a ghostly white bicycle - symbol of death by car.

In Toronto, cycling has become ridiculously politicized. The cycling lobby regards bicycles as virtuous and cars as evil. "We should not regard the horrific death of a cyclist as a one-off event to be dismissed as the act of a lone motorist," said an opinion piece in the Toronto Star.

Mr. Sheppard was partly aboriginal, and thus a double victim. He was ushered out with a drumming circle and peace pipes to help him return to the spirit world. There was plenty of pity for him, but precious little for Mr. Bryant. "An acquittal will remove the possibility of jail, but not the stain of his stupidity," a fellow Liberal (obviously not a fan) told the Star. "He'll forever be known, fairly or not, as the guy whose political career ended one fateful August night on Bloor Street."

As more facts emerged, some of the news media began rowing back from Chappaquiddick. Maybe Mr. Bryant was not so blameworthy after all. Still, he must be guilty of something. We soon found out what it was. He had hired a public relations firm! Not only that, it was the very same firm that Brian Mulroney hired! Enough said. The man clearly lacks integrity.

And now, everyone is talking about the "spin." Mr. Bryant's condolences to the bereaved family? Spin! The fresh suit he wore the morning after he was charged? More spin! And if people are rowing back, it's not because they realize they might have been a little hasty in their judgment. They've been spun!

It may be that Mr. Bryant's only crime was to be in the wrong place with the top down. We'll see. Meantime, his is a cautionary tale: Don't become a public figure who's guilty of privilege, ambition and Saab-driving - or it could happen to you.

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