Liberty Award speech at BCCLA gala

Thank you, BCCLA, for this recognition. The last award I won was in the summer of 1957 for Most Improved Camper, so getting this Liberty Award, for Excellence in the Arts, from Canada’s foremost legal advocacy organization, is an honour indeed.

I stand here on the massive shoulders of a short man: Dr. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, with whom I made friends when he agreed to visit my high school English class in Toronto. Who could guess that my next 16 years of literary work and otherwise would revolve almost exclusively around wrongful convictions?

Dr. Carter taught me most of what I know about the law and all of what I didn’t want to know, especially the intractable appeals system. He taught me that a miracle was needed to overturn a jury’s verdict. He would tell a client: “The law put you in prison; the law is keeping you in prison; the law all by itself will not get you out of prison.” For him, a miracle was “Higher laws acting on a lower level.”

You see, the law can only pretend to truth. A verdict means spoken truth, a witness is sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but nothing could be further from the truth, else there would be no wrongful convictions. I learned that without empathy, without compassion, the law is nothing but a cold, blunt instrument. Necessary to run a society but as flawed as the people who administer it. Not so with the truth, not so with goodness, not so with compassion. Those like the BCCLA, who stand up for justice in the face of state intransigence and cruelty, represent the positive side of advocacy work. How lucky I am to have met so many good people!

What place do the arts have in the law? Writers and filmmakers make us feel outrage at injustice and compassion for those who suffer through the most nightmarish of circumstances. Those like Mahar Arar, Omar Khadr, Hassan Diab, Leonard Peltier, David McCallum, Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay. Artists motivate people to stand up and correct the inevitable wrongs of the system.

At the end of a road that on average requires a decade to travel, we discover that goodness is still there; the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. “That’s the miracle, my brother!” As Rubin said over and over again. “To see just one of those people walk out the prison doors with a smile on their face. That’s the higher law acting on the lower level.”