A lawyer’s civility is Jim Flaherty’s legacy

A quarter century ago, I sat in an official examiner’s chambers across Jim Flaherty (still a senior motor vehicle litigation lawyer) as he questioned my client, the surviving mother of an accident victim who had perished at the hands of a drunk driver.  He hadn’t exactly over-prepared for the encounter.  There were none of the usual probing questions.  He entered the room, offered my client his condolences, asked some standard discovery questions, and left.  In retrospect, he knew what I had advised my client he should know: that it did not serve his insurer client’s interests to be on the wrong side of justice.

Last year, those who witnessed Flaherty’s response to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s disgrace saw a Ford family friend, federal politician and former provincial attorney general grapple with the right thing to do and say when asked to comment.   “At the end of the day,” Flaherty said, “he [Ford] has to make his own decision about what he ought to do.”  In hindsight, this terse statement was the most measured and meaningful.  Ford’s reported response to Flaherty proved a rare moment of genuine contrition from the mayor.

As we hear the outpouring of tributes from parliamentarians of every political stripe, in Ottawa, in Ontario and across the country, I say Canadians both in public and in private life ought to honour his memory best by improving the standard of civility and ethics in our discourse.  It is not enough that Canadians are considered polite and civic-minded.  When we do speak up, we don’t always do so with elegance and consideration.  It is now time we, as a people of so many differences, develop a reputation not just for saying less, but for saying things well.  As Canada’s lawyers, the profession of applied ethics, we have a special duty to lead the country in this pursuit.

Fellow lawyer Kevin Doan has kindly shared speaking notes from the following address, which Finance Minister Flaherty delivered gave to Western Law students in 2011.  (Note the tribute to Laurier, a prime minister from a rival political party, as one of Canada’s greats.)

 

I was fortunate to take my undergraduate degree at Princeton University. During that time, it was my privilege to attend a speech delivered by Robert Kennedy. His message to my own generation was crystal clear: “I need you. Your country needs you. The world needs you. You are the best and brightest of your generation.”

Today, about 40 years after I heard Kennedy speak, my message is the same: Canada needs you — your skills, talents, idealism, energy and enthusiasm.

Now, more than ever.

At the same time, you need Canada.

Because, as I can tell you, public service is good for you. It will give perspective to your life by expanding your horizons, your thoughts and your view of the world. You will learn that some issues and concerns are more important than others. This leads to discernment as choices must be made. This perspective will be useful in all aspects of your life.

Public service reminds us all that there exists a genuine concept of the public good in the broad public interest. While we value individual liberty and protect it, as Canadians we also maintain a strong tradition of the public good — that is, what is good for society as a whole, on balance, taking into account disparate interests and adopting the longer view. In public service you will participate in advancing this public good.

Public service is good for you. It will give your life a greater impact on others and your country.

In many ways ranging from individual matters to community concerns to national and global issues, the opportunities to be a positive force for others in public service are both plentiful and fulfilling.

That will make you happier, ultimately. We are, of course, not in the world alone and our lives here are finite. People seek to have an impact on broader public issues recognizing the intrinsic value of reaching out to others not only to maintain and reinforce shared common values, but also to create new initiatives and innovations. This societal public good is not incompatible with the private good. Our individual and family responsibilities are primary. Yet the desire to accumulate private goods in the end does not lead to satisfaction simply because, as we all learn, enough is never enough. On that train, some people will always be in the cars ahead.

If money was all that mattered to me, I would still be working as a lawyer in downtown Toronto. Because, I can tell you, I would be making a lot more money than I am now. But I would have missed out on so many experiences that have enriched my life. And I would have missed out on so many opportunities to shape and implement public policies that, in my opinion, have enriched others’ lives and made our communities and country stronger.

Public service is good for you. You will have opportunities to change the world around you in varying ways and to different degrees, large and small.

You will get opportunities to use your talents to implement your thoughts and beliefs. In concert with others, accomplishments will follow. Great adventure this, for disappointments and failure will follow also. Boredom, however, is not on the agenda. …

In this room it’s conceivable that we could have future mayors, future Deputy Ministers, Chairs of School Boards, a Minister of Foreign Affairs, or perhaps even a future Prime Minister.

In order for this to happen, however, you have to answer the call — the call like the one I heard Bobby Kennedy make so many years ago. Being involved in public service is an honour for me. I know that all MPs of all parties in the House of Commons, and members of the non-partisan public service at all levels, feel the same way.

Public service is good for you. It’s unlike any other career. It features long hours, relatively lower rates of pay than comparable positions on Bay Street, and it is often decades before you can witness the positive results of your labour.

Some of you might then ask: “If the hours are long and the pay low, why would I do it?”

The answer is simple: It is the most satisfying and personally enriching career you will ever find. This, my friends, is priceless.

Almost 100 years ago, one of Canada’s greatest Prime Ministers, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, addressed a group of Ontario youth. It was less than a month before his death in February, 1919.

He admitted that his generation had not solved all of Canada’s problems and was leaving much unfinished in their wake. Through public service, Laurier said, Canada’s young people would have to face these challenges themselves. And to do so, he left them the following words of advice.

“Let your aim and purpose, in good report or ill, in victory or defeat, be so to live, so to strive, so to serve as to do your part to raise even higher the standard of life and living.” 

  

 

 

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