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Monday, January 23, 2017

Whatever happened to former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant?

This is a fascinating story of what happened to Ontario's former Attorney General Michael Bryant, whose precipitous fall from grace was even more striking than the rapid rise of his political fortunes.

I met him many years ago when he first campaigned for a seat at Queen's Park. Michael impressed me as honest and capable to the extent that I even door-knocked for him for his election, with my extremely cute then-3 year-old son in tow, at the four story walk-up apartment where we then lived near Bathurst and St. Clair.

I met him a few more times while he was a politician; the woman to whom Michael was then married practiced law at the same firm, and in the next office beside a very good friend of mine, who introduced us. She too seemed a wonderful, impressive person. A series of terrible mishaps subsequently changed their lives and many others.

“I HAD NO IDEA THAT INNOCENT PEOPLE WERE, EVERY DAY, BEING TREATED LIKE GUILTY PEOPLE,” says Ontario’s former attorney general Michael Bryant. “I had no idea that the presumption of innocence is a joke.” It’s a brisk fall day, and we’re having lunch in the cafeteria at the largest courthouse in Brampton. Bryant, who turned 50 this year, is clean-shaven with short grey hair, his face framed by hipster-thick black glasses. In between bites of Caesar salad, Bryant laments how much he got wrong about Ontario’s justice system when he ran it from 2003 to 2007. But he’s starting to learn. And he’s appalled.

I’ve come to court to watch Bryant spend a day conducting bail hearings. For the past year, he’s done this a few times a week, using bail court as the staging ground for his long-term plan: to build a full-fledged criminal-law practice.

On such days, his job title is duty counsel. In return for a paycheque from Legal Aid Ontario, Bryant stands in bail court all day and represents people the police have charged, but who lack a lawyer to negotiate their release from custody. Sitting in the courtroom, I watch as police haul citizens up from the cells in the basement and plop them into a Plexiglas-encased witness box. Each person then meets Bryant, and the two chat for a couple minutes over the glass before the hearing starts. If anyone recognizes him as a former attorney general, they don’t show it.

Nor do they seem aware that Bryant was once charged with a serious crime himself. Bryant may in fact be most famous for his involvement, in 2009, in a car accident that left cyclist Darcy Allan Sheppard dead — and Bryant facing charges for dangerous driving causing death and criminal negligence causing death. (His lawyer, Marie Henein, built a defence so strong that the Crown dropped the charges before trial.) In court, Bryant looks anything but a criminal. He stands five foot eight, wears a grey textured suit with a matching vest, a crisp dress shirt, a bold red tie and brown leather shoes. He radiates the image of, well, a lawyer...

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