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Celebrated Canadian civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby dead at 80

Distinguished Canadian civil rights lawyer and giant of the legal profession Clayton Ruby has died at the age of 80.

Ruby remembered as 'pillar of the progressive community'

Celebrated civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby dead at 80

2 months ago
Duration 2:03
Distinguished civil rights lawyer and activist, Clayton Ruby, is dead at the age of 80. Ruby worked on cases that defined Canadian legal history from the exoneration of Guy Paul Morin to the rights of LGBTQ people.

Distinguished Canadian civil rights lawyer and legal giant Clayton Ruby has died at the age of 80.

Ruby died Tuesday peacefully and surrounded by his family, his law firm Ruby Shiller Enenajor DiGiuseppe said.

"Clay was a dedicated advocate for human rights, a champion of the underdog and a loving friend. Our thoughts are with his family and our entire firm mourns the loss of our leader and mentor," the firm said in a tweet. 

Ruby, who received the Order of Canada in 2005, is described on the Governor General's website as "a prominent criminal lawyer whose reputation extends across the country [who] devoted his career to the promotion of justice."

Lawyer Clayton Ruby, a giant of the legal world, has died at the age of 80. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

But while his illustrious career might be known to many, his longtime colleague Brian Shiller told CBC News some of the things he'll remember most are Ruby's sweet and caring disposition, his love of a good debate and his willingness to call a person out if he felt it was warranted. 

"That part of who Clay was, right — he was not going to, one, suffer fools lightly or, two, have his voice stifled," Shiller said.

"It's hard to imagine a world without him."

Ruby's longtime colleague Brian Shiller said one of the things he'll remember most about the legal giant is his sweet and caring disposition, love of a good debate and willingness to call a person out if he felt it was warranted.  (Farrah Merali/CBC)

Shiller first began working with Ruby 28 years ago and still considers him a mentor. The first time the two met, Shiller remembers being terrified to sit across from someone he looked to as a legend.

But as soon as Ruby sat down, that same pleasant demeanour left Shiller "totally disarmed."

"He was an empathetic, sweet person. He was highly opinionated and you wouldn't always agree with his opinions... But as a friend he was very caring," he said.

'It was justice that really defined him'

The longest-sitting bencher of the Law Society of Ontario, Ruby was a staunch advocate for justice, Shiller recalled.

"It was justice that really defined him ... and to ensure that people in authority were accountable," he said. Ruby, he said, was greatly bothered by the role of Crown attorneys in Ontario, believing they had far too much power and that they were all too often taken at their word by juries that assumed their cases were sound, he said.

Gerald Chan was a law partner of Ruby's for seven years and says he considered him "a father figure."

"He really had no ego," Chan recalled, saying what he'll remember most is Ruby's "fire and that dedication and devotion to ensuring fairness and justice for those who have the least amount of power in our society."

Gerald Chan was a law partner of Ruby's for seven years and says he considered him 'a father figure.' (Grant Linton/CBC)

Early on in his career, Chan remembers being on a Supreme Court of Canada case with Ruby and mustered up the courage to ask if he could argue a few minutes of the appeal.

"Of course you're going to argue half the appeal together with me. We are colleagues," Chan remembers Ruby saying, adding that moment captures exactly the kind of mentor Ruby was.

Among the greatest lessons he says he learned from Ruby over the years was how to be fearless and to be "single-minded" about pursuing justice where he saw a wrong.

Ruby also frowned upon Crown attorneys becoming judges, believing doing so brought them into a conflict.

While Ruby was perhaps best known for his many high-profile cases over the past half-century or so, Shiller says his life as an activist began as far back as the 60s and 70s when he would dispense free legal advice in Yorkville to hippies and those he believed were likely to be targeted by the law. He was even briefly jailed for his work as a civil rights activist in the U.S., Shiller said. 

Ruby cared deeply about a host of key causes and volunteered his time to various human rights organizations including PEN Canada, Human Rights Watch and the Sierra Legal Defence Fund.

'There are mistakes and they can be huge'

During his celebrated career, he took on some of the country's most notable cases including the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin, who was accused of killing nine-year-old Christine Jessop in 1984, before being cleared.

When police identified Jessop's killer in 2020, Ruby spoke to CBC News about the "tragedy" of wrongful convictions.

WATCH | Clayton Ruby reacts to police identifying Christine Jessop's actual killer:

Guy Paul Morin’s former lawyer reacts to police identifying Christine Jessop’s actual killer

2 years ago
Duration 3:03
The National’s Adrienne Arsenault talks to Clayton Ruby who was the defence lawyer for Guy Paul Morin, the man wrongfully convicted of killing Christine Jessop, about police learning the identity of her murderer.

"You never recover. It's never the same as it was before," he said.

We tend to trust prosecutors who say, 'Convict this man, we have enough evidence to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,'" he said.

"We trust authority and I think this case made it clear to people that there are mistakes and they can be huge and inexplicable... So there's a more skeptical approach to prosecution claims and I think that's a healthy thing. It makes us all safer."

In the 1980s, Ruby represented prominent physician and abortion rights advocate Henry Morgentaler to ensure women in Canada who needed abortions could get them safely without harassment. 

Among his other high-profile cases, Ruby also represented Michelle Douglas, a soldier dismissed from the military in 1989 for her sexual orientation. In 1992, shortly before her case was to go to trial, the military abandoned its policies banning LGBT Canadians from serving and settled the case.

In 2012, Ruby took on a conflict-of-interest case seeking to oust former Toronto mayor Rob Ford. A Superior Court justice ordered Ford removed before the decision was overturned at the Divisional Court. 

In 2020, Ruby spoke to CBC News after Ontario's chief pathologist determined the cause of Soleiman Faqiri's death in an Ontario jail cell in 2016. To date, no guards have been charged in the case.

"It's a failure of justice. And the attorney general and the solicitor general have a responsibility to correct it," Ruby told CBC News. 

A lawsuit filed by the family against the province and seven individual jail staff members remains before the courts.

Ruby was also a member of the patron's council for the medically assisted death advocacy organization Dying with Dignity.

One of his most notable cases was in 1994, when represented former NDP MP Svend Robinson, who was present at what was then the unlawful medically assisted death of Sue Rodriguez. Ultimately, Robinson was not charged.

In a tweet Wednesday, Robinson said he was "heartbroken" at the news of Ruby's death. 

"Giant in the legal profession, pillar of the progressive community, and a fine and decent man, a mensch," he wrote. 

Ruby leaves behind his wife, Superior Court judge Harriet Sachs, as well as two children and two grandchildren.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shanifa Nasser

Reporter-Editor

Shanifa Nasser is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News interested in religion, race, national security, the justice system and stories with a heartbeat. She holds an MA in the Study of Religion from the University of Toronto. Her reporting has led to two investigative documentaries by The Fifth Estate. Reach her at: shanifa.nasser@cbc.ca

With files from Farrah Merali

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