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Clayton Ruby was a shining example of ‘how much one person can do’

Ruby was one of Canada’s leading lawyers and an outspoken proponent of social justice, the environment, and press freedom

Canadian PoliticsHuman Rights

Canadian civil rights lawyer and activist Clayton Ruby passed away on August 2. He was 80-years-old. Photo courtesy the Toronto Star archives/Toronto Public Library.

Who you gonna call?

Clay Ruby. That’s who. For over half-a-century Clay answered the call. From victims of injustice and of human rights abuses, to animal rights activists and environmentalists, those who knew that if they had Clay Ruby on their side, they had the best. Brilliant, compassionate, progressive—Clay represented advocacy at its finest. He was in a league of his own, a giant in the legal profession and in the progressive movement.

For over twenty five years, as a federal New Democrat MP, I always knew that if things got really rough, or if there was an injustice that needed a powerful lawyer, I could call Clay. And I did, so many times. When I faced daunting personal legal challenges, Clay was there by my side every step of the way. When I honoured the request of my dear friend Sue Rodriguez to be with her when she died, in February 1994, and a special prosecutor was appointed to consider criminal charges, of course I reached out to Clay. He not only defended me then with passion and wisdom, he went on to be a deeply committed supporter of the right to die with dignity.

Clay was an incredible ally of the LGBT community from day one. He defended those men cruelly charged in the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids. He fought always for freedom of expression, including on behalf of the Body Politic newspaper when they faced criminal charges.

But what I will always treasure most about my decades-long friendship with Clay was his brilliant advocacy on behalf of Michelle Douglas. Michelle was an outstanding young officer in the Canadian Armed Forces who was subjected to outrageous, humiliating interrogation and abuse by CAF investigators, who demanded she take a lie detector test to prove that she was not a lesbian.

We met at a speech I was giving in Toronto in 1989, and I knew immediately she was the person to take on the homophobic policies of the military. But we needed the best lawyer there was to act on her behalf. I called Clay and without a moment of hesitation he said to bring her in to see him. He met with Michelle, overcame her fear of legal action, and went on to defeat the military, first at the Security Intelligence Review Committee (where I was his ‘co counsel’) and later at federal court.

Thirty years ago this year, Clay and Michelle won a victory that struck down these appalling policies that led to so many shattered lives and broken dreams. Long before the United States and the United Kingdom finally ended their own homophobic and transphobic policies, Clay ensured that Canada led the way. That was transformational—it changed the lives of so many.

Others have written of Clay’s remarkable record of legal victories in defending the wrongly accused, standing up with Henry Morgentaler for the rights of women seeking abortions, defending animal rights, standing on the front lines of environmental activism long before it was popular, fighting abuses of police power, and giving eloquent voice to the voiceless.

Some deaths hit you particularly hard. Clay’s certainly did for me—I am devastated at his loss. But I am also comforted in the knowledge that his deeply loved family, Harriet, Emma and Kate, and their partners and children, were able to be with him at the end and say goodbye to my friend. To tell him how much he was admired and loved. And to feel so proud to know that their dad, their granddad, their partner, changed the world. As his daughter Emma said, “He was an example of how much one person can do.” Rest in power, old friend.

And now, who are we gonna call?

Svend Robinson is a former MP for the New Democratic Party. He lives in British Columbia.

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