A Tale of Two Courtrooms

Last week, two men were in Ontario courtrooms. It was hard not to compare them.

In a courtroom in Oshawa, John Clarke sat handcuffed and shackled in the prisoners dock for three days awaiting the results of a bail hearing in front of a justice of the peace. On the last day of Clarke's hearing, Mike Harris sat with his briefing book on the witness stand at the inquiry into the poison water scandal in Walkerton.

John Clarke is the controversial leader of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, a group whose confrontational tactics have brought down the fury of the chattering classes. Mike Harris is the premier of Ontario, twice elected, whose popularity has been in free fall ever since the tainted water of Walkerton killed seven people there.

John Clarke had to wait two weeks for his hearing, spending that time in jail. Mike Harris made an appointment to appear at his hearing and it began promptly when he arrived. When John Clarke's hearing was finished, he had to go back to jail for another two and a half weeks, maybe more. The JP denied him bail. After his hearing, Mike Harris got to go home, back to his regular life, his girlfriend, his golf game.

John Clarke is suspected of messing up somebody's files, pushing desks around and maybe throwing a microwave oven out the window. Mike Harris is suspected of implementing policies that caused the death of seven people in Walkerton and the suffering of a couple thousand more.

John Clarke works every day with the victims of the premier's policies. Mike Harris has probably never given the OCAP leader's work much thought. If John is right, Mr. Harris has thought more about it since the mock office eviction of one of his cabinet ministers. I doubt John is right.

John Clarke makes $20,000 a year. He hasn't had a raise in years, if ever. The people he works for are too poor to pay him better. Mike Harris makes about $140,000 a year, and he might just get a 70 per cent raise. Despite his dedication to reducing deficits and taxes, Mike Harris wouldn't work for $20,000, or even twice that.

The Crown attorney characterized John Clarke's actions as "terrorism." Mike Harris's actions were called a business plan. John Clarke is so desperately concerned about the policies of the Ontario government and how they affect poor people that he is willing to put his freedom on the line. Mike Harris is so sanguine about the policies of the Ontario government that he thinks testifying at an inquiry will increase his popularity.

During an anti-poverty march once, John Clarke was observed talking to a homeless man. He spoke with the warmth, affection and respect usually reserved for a special friend who is having a hard time. Mr. Harris testified for hours in front of people who had lost their loved ones to poison water, or who were deathly ill themselves and may never regain their health. He spoke with less feeling than a pardon me in the supermarket.

In the law, John Clarke is charged with criminal offences. He doesn't know yet if the Crown will indict him, but either way he could get more prison time. Mike Harris is just a witness at an inquiry. If the judge indicts his policies for causing these deaths and this suffering, he might decide to bring in a Clear Water Act as penance, but he probably won't have to do anything. Maybe, if we are lucky, he will lose the next election and spend the rest of his days on corporate boards and the golf course. John Clarke, without any indictment - or even a real judge to hear his case - has lost his liberty, his freedom of speech, his freedom of association.

In my country, this is what they call the justice system.

Judy Rebick is the publisher of rabble.ca. Her column also appears on cbc.ca. This piece originally ran in The Globe and Mail.

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