The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry, By Jerry Gladman

THE TORONTO SUN

JULY 13, 1991

You’re Harry Kopyto and you’re a pain In the butt.

But then people have said that for a long time now. It’s one of many labels you earned with your wild and woolly shenanigans for most of your 15 years as an anti-establishment socialist lawyer. Before they pulled your ticket and sent you into another arena.

Renegade, maverick, radical, rebel, outrageous. A thorn in the side of the legal establishment. Those you liked. They were badges. You often used them to describe yourself. Harry Kopyto, champion of the downtrodden, the dispossessed, the untouchable. The lawyer of last resort.

But there were other labels, ones that made you squirm and sputter and kick back. Names like cheater, windbag, grandstander, incompetent, obnoxious clown. A loud-mouthed self-centered publicity hunter. A hardnose who even went to the wall with his father and brother on political issues, for heaven’s sake.

You tried to make a name for yourself with the cases and causes you backed. And there were many issues of social significance, most of them involving the little guy against the system.

You’re Harry Kopyto and you wanted to be known for your impact on the law, the precedent setting cases bearing your mark and your life-long struggle against injustice.

Instead, you made your reputation with Krazy Glue, the Chanukah Caper and the gig that eventually got you tossed – allegedly ripping of Legal Aid. The only battle most people remember you for was the one against the legal profession. And you lost. Old scores settled.

You’re Harry Kopyto and they booted you out.

Some of he boys in the downtown circle say Harry Kopyto’s disbarment served a dual purpose. It got rid of the little bastard and also used him as an example to chill dissent among other lawyers.

Even many who backed your initial cause believe your incessant outrageous antics gave the legal profession a bad name. But then you figured the establishment earned that without the help of Harry Kopyto.

Others have positive things to say. Folks with a similar political bent. Idealistic law students. Many of your past clients. Other ranking soldiers in the human rights brigade who fight the same wars as you do (albeit with somewhat less annoying theatrics).

You’re Harry Kopyto and you sure know how to get attention.

But then that’s what they insist it’s always been about. Getting people to notice little Harry Kopyto. And it worked. They know you out there. Only it hasn’t exactly served you as well as you’d hoped.

You’re Harry Kopyto and not too many people are wild about you.

LOOK, MY STYLE HAS NEVER BEEN DESIGNED TO WIN FRIENDS IN THE ESTABLISHMENT

Harry Kopyto’s problems really began back in l985 when the feisty little lawyer should have kept his mouth shut – but couldn’t.

Of course, those who’ve seen Kopyto’s act might rule that statement rhetorical. Kopyto could never button it. Not as a kid preaching socialism, as an anti-Zionist quarrelling with his family nor a lawyer tilting at every single windmill hoisted by the legal establishment.

But this time his words – charging a cozy relationship between the courts and the police – really busted some chops.

“It stinks to high hell,” said Kopyto back then, frustrated over losing an eight-year legal battle against the RCMP for employing “dirty tricks” against one of his clients.,

“The courts are warped in favor of protecting the police. The courts and the RCMP are sticking so close together that you’d think they were put together with Krazy Glue.”

While his remarks would eventually give that particular adhesive product more exposure than a thousand marketing ads, the enemy camp thought he went too far. So they took off after him.

“Look, my style has never been designed to win friends in the establishment,” says Kopyto. “I’m a radical, a rebel. I’m trouble. But a lot of people agreed with what I said about the courts at that time. With the benefit of hindsight, I might have chosen more judicious metaphors.

“But,” he adds, eyes wide, “I was still exercising a fundamental democratic right to freedom of expression.”

He was convicted of contempt of court and banned from appearing in Ontario courtrooms. It was a slap on the wrist which could have smarted less had he buckled under. All they wanted, was an apology.

“I said at the time I’d rather go to jail than apologize. I would have dug ditches first before giving in to them.”

For a spell, it appeared he might have had to find himself a shovel. But eventually, he had his day. The conviction was overturned by the Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that the law under which he was charged was unconstitutional – which he’d claimed all along.

Kopyto saw the appeal victory as vindication, but his butt was quickly on the line with the Law Society. Five days after the court ruling, he had to answer to six charges of unbecoming behavior.

Harry Kopyto was fearless in the face of the enemy. But his days as a practicing lawyer were also numbered.

***

Whenever someone brings up his past, Kopyto is fond of remarking that he was born with the taste of ashes in his mouth. In some ways, he was.

Born on Friday Dec.13, 1946, in a displaced persons camp in Ulm, Germany in the wake of the Holocaust, Kopyto’s eyes smoulder when he recalls that more than 100 of his relatives were murdered by the Nazis.

“I can never get away from the fact that there were just my parents, my brother and I left in the world from a huge family. Four Kopytos in the whole goddammed world. A whole family cut to a stump. That’s a pretty serious way for a kid to begin his life.”

The Kopytos came to Canada in l952. They settled in the Spadina-College area where Harry’s mother, Freida, went to work in a factory and his father, Israel plied his trade as a tailor.

Kopyto recalls becoming political at a very young age.

As a young boy, he was impressed by other radicals, so much so this socialist-in-waiting gave his first political speech at age 10. It was a pacifist speech in Yiddish to a branch of the United Jewish People’s Order, a left-wing cultural group. And it felt good.

But his parents were concerned about the direction their young son was taking, mainly because the sharp edge of his politics was his anti-Zionism. He believed strongly that Israel should be a nation for all people-not just Jews.

It reached to point where Kopyto was refused spending money and forbidden to leave the house. But it didn’t matter – he went anyway. “I walked downtown and joined the Trotskyist Youth Movement. I was 12 years old and I’ve been a member ever since.”

From the early days, he admits there was a rift with his brother over Zionism that has lasted all their lives.

“To this day, neither one of us has entered the other’s house,” Kopyto says sadly. “I hope some day before it’s too late we can have a reconciliation.”

As a young child, he used to lay awake in the dark of night an wonder why God spared him. It became an obsession. Why was he alive and all his relatives dead?

“That’s when I made a promise to myself, the only promise I’ve ever really kept. I’d live my life to atone for the death of my family. I’d fight against fascism to assure it would never happen again.”

Only to Kopyto, fascism was the same as capitalism – without the fig leaf. That meant he’d have to fight capitalism.

“I had to fight for socialism. From that point on, the only purpose in my life was to make the revolution.”

Socially, he was outside the mainstream, never a joiner. But he wasn’t a total misfit. Outside the synagogue where he attended Hebrew classes, there was a snow hill. Early on, Kopyto made it to the top of that hill and, as small as he was, defended it against all comers.

“I always say that I learned how to fight the legal establishment atop a snow hill, at the corner of Winona and St.Clair,” says the five-foot-five, 170-pound battler.

In university, he was politically active, forever searching for answers, battling the system, fighting for human rights. Outspoken, stubborn, an avowed Marxist.

And then he stumbled.

Writing his bar exams, Kopyto got caught copying down somebody else’s answers. He didn’t have to cheat. He was smart. He’d studied.

Kopyto admitted his crime, took the year over and passed. But the damage had been done. For somewhere down the road, whenever Harry Kopyto was busy making somebody’s life miserable, there’d always be somebody else to remind him of the day he cheated.

***

For a long time, Harry Kopyto was just another lawyer.

His early career was somewhat less than remarkable. He defended countless clients, but didn’t make any real noise until l980 when he created the Chanukah Caper. That’s when Kopyto first began to attract outside attention.

He had a case put over because he wanted to celebrate the Jewish holiday with his family. But the next day he was spotted by the crown attorney in a courtroom monitoring another case.

In his own defence, Kopyto tried to make it an issue of religious freedom. But they didn’t buy it. He was fined $1 on each of two counts of contempt. The appeals courts eventually quashed the convictions, but emphasized it didn’t condone his conduct.

He won that one, but it left a bad taste. Nor did it come without a price tag – one generally reserved for non-conformists. The Law Society reprimanded him and he apologized. But hey began watching this mouthy upstart a little closer.

Kopyto really didn’t need the aggravation, but somewhere deep down it kindled a spark. His name began appearing regularly in the papers, which started him thinking about using the media more effectively to bring attention to his cases.

“I know what people say about me being in love with publicity, but it’s more than just a matter of getting attention. There have been more than 1,000 articles containing my name between 1980 and 1990. But it’s not attention to Harry Kopyto. Harry Kopyto doesn’t matter. He’s insignificant. It’s the issues and express it in a dramatic and easily understandable form.”

They certainly understood him in the Krazy Glue matter. So they prosecuted him on a charge of scandalizing the courts with his comments. After a lengthy trial – often bordering on burlesque because of his outlandish behavior – he was found guilty.

And even though he was ultimately cleared when the conviction was quashed, there was scant time for rejoicing. He had to face the discipline committee and six charges, the most damaging being that he overbilled Legal Aid for an enormous amount.

The Law Society found him guilty of civil fraud. Kopyto claimed it was a difference in interpretation. He admitted the overbilling, but insisted it was due to inaccuracies caused by work overload.

They didn’t go for it. Rejecting his explanations as unbelievable, the committee ruled in favor of disbarment.

Ironically, while awaiting his appeal, he sued Legal Aid and they eventually reimbursed him for almost 95% of his claims. “I got almost everything I asked for so how could I have committed fraud? I asked to be charged criminally. I begged to be charged. But they didn’t because they know I never gained one cent as a result of fraud.”

Kopyto takes a breath and wags his finger. “The truth is somewhere in there they were getting even with Harry Kopyto for what they saw as past trangressions. They got rid of this pain-in-the-ass thorn in their side.”

Whatever the case may have been, little Harry Kopyto was on the outside looking in.

***

You’re Harry Kopyto and you want to play with the big boys again.

Your appeal comes up in October. In it, you’re challenging the constitutionality of the Law Society’s discipline process. Your lawyers figure you’ve got a decent whack at getting the decision overturned.

But there are a lot of folks out there who’d be delighted if Harry Kopyto never got his ticket restored. Sure, you can still stir up a lot of noise as a legal agent. But it isn’t the same as being a full-blown lawyer with all its privileges. And you still wouldn’t be able to walk into a big-time courtroom.

If the appeal goes bad, you’ll then apply to be re-admitted. If that washes out, you still have plenty to keep you hustling as a legal agent. Appearing before labor relations boards, various professional tribunals, discipline bodies and inquests.

Oh yeah, you can still make a buck, Harry. Pay the rent, jiggle some chump change. It won’t be enough to save your fancy Forest Hill digs, but then you’ve know that for a while. There’s always a price.

Then there’s politics. A long-time member of the NDP’s Left Caucus, you talk of running for office. You’re also writing a book about your important cases.

And you have your family, your children. You adore them – Marc, 15, politically uninterested; Erika 12, a fighter in her father’s mould.

You also have Angie. Professional associate, member of your legal team, your live-in-lady. She’s supported you all the way down the line, both spiritually and financially. In fact, you admit you’d be a lot worse off if not for Angie.

But Angie has her own troubles. They’re after her for alleged immigration improprieties. And being aligned with you has never been a major advantage for her career. It’s also never stopped her.

But in your heart, you’ll never feel whole again until you’re in court, barreling full steam ahead, challenging judicial authority, defending the little guy.

In quiet moments, you admit you’ve made mistakes. Harry Kopyto is not perfect. He has blemishes and deficiencies. But no regrets. You still believe there’s a place for you on the right side of the courtroom.

You’re Harry Kopyto, still King of the Snow Hill.

But the snow is melting. Harry, the snow is melting.

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