Toronto Star | Apr. 18, 2004 | Tracey Tyler

Life and crimes of Irwin Cotler

Former firebrand now justice minister
Will activist past be a boon or baggage?


Irwin Cotler was sworn to secrecy. He'd just been told by Prime Minister Paul Martin he was about to become Canada's justice minister. But apart from his immediate family, he couldn't tell a soul.

As he approached Rideau Hall for the swearing-in ceremony last December, however, the coast seemed clear. Taking out his cell phone, the first person he called was his close friend Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard University law professor who became a household name defending celebrities such as O.J. Simpson and Claus von Bulow.

"It was a very low (pitched) call," Dershowitz recalled in a telephone interview. "He said, 'Believe it or not, this was a secret until now. I couldn't tell anyone.'"

They met while Cotler was in graduate studies at Yale University law school in the 1960s "and we've been inseparable ever since," Dershowitz said.

But while he and Cotler developed reputations for being outspoken civil libertarians and defenders of sometimes-unpopular causes, there's one important difference, he says.

"Everyone likes Irwin. He's such a sweet guy."

Well, not quite everyone.

Cotler, who turns 64 on May 8, is perhaps the only Canadian justice minister in recent memory to be arrested and detained at least three times.

He was kicked out of the Soviet Union in 1979 on his way to visit Natan Sharansky, then a political dissident held in Siberia's Christopol prison. The KGB called it an "espionage mission," and interrogated him for hours before putting him on a plane out of the country.

Cotler was also arrested at a Vietnam War protest in Cambridge, Mass., in the 1960s. In 1981, after giving a speech in support of Nelson Mandela, he was arrested and hauled in front of South Africa's then-president, P.W. Botha, who questioned his thinking.

Cotler says the people he really admires are those who are willing to confront evil and injustice, and ultimately triumph. His heroes include Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish non-Jew credited with saving 100,000 Jews during World War II, and, more recently, Said Ibrahim, a professor jailed for human rights advocacy in Egypt.

"I happened to have represented him, so I know the courage he had first-hand," Cotler said as he sat down with the Star during a visit to Toronto. "He challenged the authorities, fought it out and was finally acquitted."

Sometime soon, Cotler will be asked to decide whether the Steven Truscott case is another such story. In a murder mystery that has bedevilled Canadians for almost a half-century, Truscott, now 59, was convicted and sentenced to hang for the strangulation death of Lynne Harper, his 12-year-old classmate in Clinton, Ont., in 1959. The Toronto-based Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted petitioned the federal government to reopen the case and a report by retired Quebec Court of Appeal judge Fred Kaufman is expected to be delivered to Cotler this spring.

Cotler's in-the-trenches experience as a human rights lawyer and McGill University law professor certainly gives him a perspective many of his predecessors lacked. But in some cases, it can also add up to baggage, making political life more complicated.

Canada's Muslim Lawyers' Association is taking a wait-and-see approach toward Cotler, a former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

"Nobody's hostile, but everyone's cautious," said Irfan Syed, president of the 100-member association, which was disappointed that Cotler supported the federal anti-terrorism law.

On the other hand, Cotler only gave the law "two cheers." In an article written at the time for the Globe and Mail, he criticized at least a dozen aspects of the legislation, including elements of unfairness in procedures set up for listing terrorist organizations.

Long before the government caved to public pressure, he was also calling for an inquiry into the case of Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian deported by the U.S. to Syria. Late last year, however, Cotler announced he was ending his involvement with the case because he had given the Arar family legal advice before he became justice minister.

Meanwhile, Cotler is also facing criticism on unexpected fronts. Even though he was counsel to the Deschenes commission on war criminals in Canada and wants to make bringing war criminals to justice a priority, Cotler was criticized in a recent CBC documentary for not doing enough to track down suspected Serbian war criminals living in Ontario.

Some same-sex marriage supporters are also upset Cotler has expanded the reference case on the issue, which is expected to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada next fall, to include a question of whether denying same-sex couples the right to marry would violate the Charter of Rights.

Even with all the controversy, Dershowitz says he's not surprised Cotler traded academia for politics.

"Irwin has always been in politics," he says. "His life has been trying to influence public policy."

That's not to say it's all work. When he lets his hair down, Cotler likes to listen to rollicking klezmer music, especially the kind with jazz undertones, inspired by the traditional tunes of itinerant Jewish folk musicians.

Dershowitz says he's also devoted to his family, including his wife, three grown daughters and a teenage son.

Cotler calls his son "an ever-humbling presence," who thought the high point of his dad's career was when a TV newscast reported (erroneously) that "POT-TV," a Web site devoted to marijuana, named him "Man of the Year."

But law was clearly more than a career choice he fell into. Cotler says he wanted to be a lawyer "as far back as I remember." He grew up in Montreal as an only child in a home where the pressing social issues of the day were never far from discussion.

Cotler's father, Nat, was a lawyer and friends with some of the leading Montreal activists of the day, including future CCF and NDP leader David Lewis and the poet A.M. Klein. His mother, Fay, who "abhorred bigotry in all its forms," opened their home to people of all races and religions, he says.

Growing up, the law and justice system seemed to be the focal point for "all the actions and passions of the times," and, on some deeper level, a mechanism for improving society.

His father in particular, he says, fostered that view through his scholarly approach to his profession. "He used to read to me from the great works of the leading jurists of our time," Cotler says. One of them was the American Oliver Wendell Holmes, who famously said, "A person who has not shared the actions and passions of his time is deemed not to have lived."

If you want to know about Cotler's other influences, look to his teachers.

In high school, his homeroom teacher was none other than Irving Layton, future poet and wild man of the Canadian literary scene, who, back then, was livening up chemistry and physics lessons with splashes of philosophy.

Later, at McGill law school, Cotler studied under Frank Scott, the socialist, poet and civil libertarian who was considered one of Canada's great constitutional scholars and credited with shaping a generation of Canadian lawyers. Scott taught Cotler's father (who kept his notes, which Cotler dug out when he took the class). He also taught former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and is credited as the one who actually coined Trudeau's signature phrase, "a just society." Cotler says he very much subscribes to the same goal and considers the law not just a set of rules but a vehicle for "the reconstitution of society." His outlook crystallized in August, 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech in Washington. Cotler was there.

"His voice still resonates and impacts on me today," he says.

When Cotler returned home after graduate school, he landed a job as special assistant to John Turner, who was then Trudeau's justice minister. He later went to McGill, where he ran the human rights program, but was never far from the courtroom.

As a lawyer, Cotler won Quebec prisoners the right to vote, pushed for prosecutors to consider charging RCMP officers involved in a dirty tricks campaign in the 1970s and tried to stop cruise missile testing in Canada and lost.

His forte, however, was defending political prisoners around the world who were jailed for opposing government policies or expressing unfavourable political opinions. His clients also included Mandela and another Nobel Peace Prize winner Andre Sakharov.

One thing in particular Cotler would like to do as justice minister is resurrect an idea from his Turner days, setting up an advisory council to the justice minister. As Turner's special assistant, Cotler helped establish something similar in the early 1970s, which brought together "the best and brightest" legal minds for a two-day brainstorming session in Montebello, Que. They emerged with a "manifesto for law reform," which helped lead to the creation of the Law Reform Commission of Canada, the federal court system, new bail laws, provincial legal aid programs and neighbourhood legal clinics staffed by law students, including Parkdale Legal Services in Toronto.

But can a guy with an eye on the big picture have patience for the meat-and-potato issues that can occupy a justice minister's file? Cotler admits he has no clue how e-mails or computers work. Is something like courtroom technology even on his radar? Will the problems of court delays seem a crashing bore? Somehow, says Dershowitz, Cotler will find a way to embrace those issues, perhaps even tying them into something larger.

"Irwin is interested in everything," he says. "If you ask him, he will tell you, `The Bible says you do not delay justice.'"