Lawyer takes Establishment as his windmill

Lawyer takes Establishment as his windmill


“I sense that there are people out there who are not in love with me.” Harry Kopyto, lawyer.

He tilts at his own personal windmills: the solid structures on society’s landscape, perceived corporate villains, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Attorney-General of Ontario, the Establishment.

“Harry Kopyto,” Harry Kopyto says, “does not sue persons, unless they are very wealthy and establishment people. I sue major corporations and I sue the government. I sue the police.”

He does so relentlessly, often with calculated abrasiveness, always with every ounce of energy in his short, stodgy 35 year-old frame. Every single lawsuit, to him, is legal Armageddon with the outcome crucial to the survival of human freedoms.

To watch Harry Kopyto do battle in court is to observe the ideologic Marxist, self-styled spokesperson for the downtrodden, versus the Establishment as champion of the status quo. When the two try to address each other, it is a study in absolute failure to communicate.

He has a rare concept of victory in a profession where most lawyers see the win as everything. Mr. Kopyto’s wins have little to do with how his cases are ultimately decided in the courtroom.

“Just to launch a suit is a victory for me,” he says, “because it gets information out and gives voice to the political struggle.”

He calls the enemy “the System” or “the Establishment,” but in his mind, it is a foe befogged in vagueness and ambiguity. He cannot see it, but he feels it.

“I sense the presence of an elite,” he says. “I can’t put a name to it, I can’t put a face to it, but I feel it’s there making it impossible for my cases to be dealt with in a way that the social consequences are not obliterated.”

He stands alone.

No friends in profession

He has no friends in the legal profession, whose membership he describes as “self-important, egotistical, egomaniacal in some cases, materialistic………They think they are God’s gift to the world, they have overblown evaluations of themselves, they are more concerned with how much money they can make than with serving their clients……….”

Another lawyer says of Mr. Kopyto: “If you’re Harry Kopyto and you walk into court, your case will get called last. If you’re Harry Kopyto, you don’t get the really good cases because you’re not one of the guys who pass the good cases to each other. If you’re Harry Kopyto, everything works against you.”

A moment’s reflection, and the same lawyer adds, “Look: I speak on civil liberties and so do others. But your freedom and mine ultimately depends more on Harry Kopyto for his lack of judgment and occasional stupidities than on anyone else. Because no one tells him what to do.”

Mr. Kopyto has no illusions about where he stands in the pecking order of Ontario’s legal establishment.

“The people I represent,” he says, “wouldn’t be represented by anyone else. I’m the last person they come to. I am the dead end. After me there is nothing. Oblivion. I am the last hope. I should actually be an honorary member of the Establishment for sowing illusions that the legal system can be responsive to people’s needs.”

In a different mood, on a different day, Mr. Kopyto offers another appraisal of himself: “I hate to say this, and it bothers me, and it depresses me, but I happen to be the most consistent political lawyer fighting for the rights of the people. The profession of law is disappearing. Where are the fighters? Where are the Clarence Darrows?

“If there were two dozen like me, the system would probably break down. The judges would go crazy. Rich people would have sleepless nights……”

He sees himself, unabashedly, as a misfit aggressor in an arena made tranquil by unwritten rules of conduct that prescribe gentlemanly behavior and belie the theory of the adversarial system in which lawyers are supposed to single-mindedly move heaven and earth for the people they represent.

“I also believe in justice. Passionately. That’s another thing that demarks me.”

Product of environment

What Mr. Kopyto is, he is fond of saying, is a product of his environment.

He was born in 1946, the son of Polish Jews, in a displaced person’s camp in West Germany. Every member of his family, except a brother and his parents, was killed during the Second World War, he says. He lived in Israel from 1948 to 1952 when his parents came to Canada.

“Because I was culturally cross-pollinated,” he says, “I can see things others have been trained not to see.”

Though he did not live through it, Mr. Kopyto says, “the Holocaust was the key experience of my life”.

“I asked myself from very early on why I was spared. I came to the conclusion I was spared in order to give whatever abilities I have to ensure we never again have a situation where we have systematic racism, oppression and dictatorship, where we have people with influence and wealth telling weak and impoverished people what to do and how to behave.”

It is a struggle that began early for Harry Kopyto. In early high school he fought for the abolition of compulsory cadet training and led the opposition to higher milk prices.

“I was always a trouble-maker. I’m hopeless.”

` In university, he was active in the ban-the-bomb movement and later in the anti-Vietnam war movement.

In the early 1970’s, he was a member of the League for Socialist Action, from which he later acquired one of his most persistent clients and he was active in the Waffle wing of the New Democratic Party.

“I have always been political,” he says. “I am now an active member of the left wing of the NDP”.

“Some people have described me as a Marxist, which own up to.”

He leans over a table in his 15th floor office in the Thomson building at Queen and Bay Streets and affectionately pats a file folder full of Ontario Law Reports.

“These are my reported cases,” he says reverently, “I don’t have a calling card. These are my cards.”

He leafs through the file and intones: “1975 John Damien versus the Ontario Racing Commission. The first homosexual to use the courts to seek justice. It began a revolutionary change in people’s consciousness and Damien became an inspiration for thousands to go public.”

Seven years later, the suit is till before the courts.

“The significance of that suit,” Mr. Kopyto says, reiterating his belief in using courts for political cases, “is not whether it is won or lost, but that it even took place.”

It also set the trend for the type of cases Mr. Kopyto was to concentrate on in his legal career.

A Jew, he represented the Canadian Arab Federation in a libel action against The Globe and Mail. “The significant fact is that I was even hired. The Jewish community went wild.”

He launched a series of actions that sought to establish the principle that a person is entitled to see the information on which a search warrant that affects him is based.

He has fought cases that affect women’s rights, prisoners’ rights, the rights of the aged and the handicapped and unions’ rights.

For five years he has represented Ross Dowson, former chairman of the League for Socialist Action, in a series of unsuccessful suits against the RCMP.

The suits allege Mr. Dowson was defamed in an RCMP report that implied he advocated social change through violent means.

Mr. Kopyto has lost that case all along the way and he now wants to bring the matter before the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations.

In a reference to Attorney-General Roy McMurtry’s ministry, he says, “There’s no question that a lot of people believe they are out to get me. I feel what those people are telling me just to an extent be right.”

Etched in Mr. Kopyto’s mind is the length to which the Attorney-General went to restore a 1988 contempt-of-court citation against him. The lawyer was found in contempt by a County Court judge for failing to appear in court on Chanukah. The finding was overturned by the Ontario Court of Appeal and Mr. McMurtry’s department fought the case – unsuccessfully – to the Supreme Court of Canada.

“What they did was incredible,” Mr. Kopyto says. “It must have cost them $100,000 to appeal a $2 fine. Don’t those guys have anything better to do?”

Ask about his family, and he mentions his wife Sabina, his 3-year-old daughter, Erica, his 7-year-old son, Marc. (“I take great joy In following the Biblical edict to multiply.”) Then he drifts away from that, and tells of his pride in his “proietarian origin.”

Obsession with chess

Ask about his hobbies and he tells of his obsession with chess and then moves on to discuss articles on law that he is writing. And the books he is reading: Marxism and Psychoanalysis, Primitive Law, The Rise of Capitalism.

In another office, before Mr. Kopyto moved to the Thomson Building, there was a framed quotation on his wall from Eugene Debs, a turn-of-the-century labor leader and five-time Socialist candidate for president of the United States: “Years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living things. I said then, I say now, as long as there is a lower class, I am of it; as long as there is one soul in prison, I am not free.”

“I took it down because it was sort of corny,” Mr. Kopyto says.

“But that’s my attitude. To law, and to life.”


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