EDDIE GREENSPAN AND THE COUCHICHING GALA

The death in December of the celebrated Toronto lawyer, Eddie Greenspan, produced many fond and admiring recollections. Here is another one.

But first, a little background information. I am on the Board of the Couchiching Conference, a worthy group that encourages discussions of topics of public interest, especially at the annual August Conference beside, yes, Lake Couchiching. In fact, with Heather Keachie I co-chaired last year’s conference on Sport.

Running a public-interest group like this costs money, so we do lots of fund-raising. One of our most effective methods is the Couchiching Gala in Spring, where members of the public can get a fine meal, and choose to sit at a table hosted by one specific celebrity guest. At Archaeo Restaurant in April 2014 among many interesting possible table companions was Eddie Greenspan, widely recognised as Canada’s leading defence lawyer. Jane and I signed up for an evening of Eddie’s table talk, along with five fortunate others.

I had an extra role. As a Couch Board member, I was asked to “host” the table, in effect to direct the discussion, to make sure that Eddie held the floor, and to keep the table centred on one conversation. I was not a bad choice for the role. Leaving aside the question of natural assertiveness (some might use words like “rude”), I was a friend of Eddie’s. We had met way back in the 1970s, when I edited By Persons Unknown: The Strange Death of Christine Demeter, written by George Jonas and Barbara Amiel. The 1977 account of what was then the longest murder trial in Canadian history was a huge commercial success, won prizes for its authors, and was useful to my career as a trouble-making non-fiction editor.

Much more important, the Demeter trial brought the junior defence Counsel, Eddie Greenspan, into the limelight, until he eclipsed the famous defence lead, Joe Pomerant. It was clear to everyone around the headline-making trial that a legal star had just been born.

I met Eddie behind the scenes in those days, and was impressed by this comfortably-built man with a thick head of hair and a very direct look. I especially liked his natural style, which included the straightforward use of simple language. This is a gift not universally shared, as we were reminded when Eddie later took on the case of Conrad Black. Sadly, the verbose Conrad proved to be a poor loser when he went to jail, and his attack on the performance of his chosen counsel, Eddie Greenspan, prompted Eddie to write a wry defence in the newspaper, where he noted that it is not unknown for people in jail to blame their lawyers.

Because of our link, I once took the chance to see Eddie in action in court. It was not an especially important case, except to Gordon Allan, Eddie’s client, who had been accused of murder. I went along for Eddie’s summing up. He said, in effect : “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we’ve been here for many days, and we’ve heard many confusing suggestions about what happened on the day of this sad event. Let me try to explain to you what really happened….” And he went on, very simply, with no courtroom theatrics, no fancy oratory, just kindly explaining it all.

When he had finished, and we broke for lunch, it was obvious that Eddie’s client was going to be found not guilty. And he was.

I began our evening conversation by recalling that trial, and Eddie described the details well. Then we were off, ranging across his cases over the years, from Demeter to Black, and dealing with wider issues such as the wisdom of juries against the errors of judges, and the whole issue of his successful fight against capital punishment. It was all frank and witty, and such a constant source of information that I had to interrupt to allow him to snatch a bite to eat. At the end of the evening, Eddie slipped off into the night, after I had ushered him to the door, trying to express the deep gratitude of all of us at the table.

I saw him again in November, when once again Eddie was slipping away from another legal-book event. We hailed each other, I clapped his arm, but we did not have the chance to chat. The Couch Gala remains a vivid memory, however, of the unforgettable Eddie Greenspan.

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Hugh MacLennan and the Women’s Soccer Bronze Medal

On Saturday, August 11, I performed my show at the annual Couchiching Conference. Jane and I met there 11 years ago when I was a visiting speaker (pronouncing great truths on globalization and publishing, I recall) and Jane was a hospitable member of the board, tasked with making visiting speakers feel welcome. We were married within the year.

The conference theme this year was The Arab Spring, and the implications for Canada. My Stories About Storytellers show was labelled as “And Now For Something Completely Different,” which was very accurate billing. But much of the Conference had dealt with the worrying situation facing the minority groups in many nations in the Arab world, and Hugh MacLennan provided an interesting link there.

I recalled for the audience that it was Hugh who made the point that Canada was formed from “defeated peoples.” Hugh listed The Loyalists, driven north after losing the American War of Independence, the French-Canadians after 1759, the waves of Highland Scots ejected after The Clearances, the Potato Famine Irish. Thereafter there were waves of defeated people from Europe, followed by more recent examples like Vietnamese Boat People, Ugandan Asians, victims of the Yugoslavian troubles, Tamil refugees, and on and on, not to mention our invaded aboriginal people.

I went on to suggest that if you were trying to create a society that was concerned about minorities, not just the triumphant majority, you couldn’t devise a more promising background than Canada’s.

As a punch line, to show how long-lasting this cultural heritage of support for gallant losers really is, I asked what other nation would be so proud of an Olympic bronze medal? Think about it. It was no accident that Christine Sinclair was selected as our flag-bearer. That bronze medal was the great event of the Olympics for most Canadians.

Hugh MacLennan would have been very pleased.