about Ernie by Dave Brown

A Lifetime Spent Fighting for Justice

Column: Dave Brown, Source: Ottawa Citizen, Mon Dec 6 2010, Page: B1, Section: City 

If there were ways to cut long and slow lineups at courts, cut down on the numbers being sent to prison, and help avoid criminal records for people who made a mistake in our nutty zero tolerance society — would we not implement them?

Not really.

Adults of the Homo sapiens species fear and resist change, and if there’s a chance it may affect the incomes of those who benefit from old and not necessarily efficient ways, they’ll dig in, close their ears, and resist. Many of the agents for change, if faced with enough roadblocks, will eventually give up and go away.

Not Ernie Tannis.

For more than 30 years the Ottawa lawyer has championed a plan to change the way we do justice. There has been headway, but it’s slow and limited. Nobody gets through a normal life without running into problems, ranging from person-to-person disputes to criminal charges resulting from bad judgment.

His work as an agent for change has been pro bono. If he were to be paid at lawyer rates for all the hours he has devoted to trying to awaken the public to a better way, he could retire.

Twenty years ago, he wrote a book about the benefits of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and donated the money it raised to the ADR cause. He appeared at no charge in front of any group willing to listen. He helped set up mediation programs in schools, and an ADR alternative program at the Ottawa courthouse. The programs worked, but died deaths of a thousand cuts — of the budget variety.

He was a driving force in the establishment of the ADR Centre of Ottawa, and although it still works, it doesn’t thrive. He threw his energy behind other programs, including the “restorative justice” program.

Last Monday, he launched another book, Is Everybody at the Table? Its subtitle: 18 Life Lessons in Problem Solving. The “lessons” are details of his own experiences and successes in using reasoning, rather than courtrooms, to resolve disputes.

To be clear here, I was master of ceremonies at all three of his book launches. The third is an updated version of his first book, launched at the same time as his 18 lessons.

First speaker at last week’s event at Dominion Chalmers United Church was Police Chief Vern White, another believer. His thesis for his master’s degree was on restorative justice. It’s a plan that can see an offender sit down with his victim, and work out solutions acceptable to both. Sometimes a judge can be convinced that the crime was a one-off, and the offender can avoid a criminal record.

In one of his 18 lessons, Tannis points to a problem in marketing such concepts to those with a vested interest.

He was invited to explain the restorative concept to 125 prison guards, and saw resistance.

To them, such a program would result in fewer people going to prison, and that could result in job cuts. How he won them over would use up too much space in a column format, and it alone makes the book worth reading.

There’s a similar resistance to change in the legal industry. A courthouse is a factory and its raw material is people. Industry insiders haven’t openly resisted the move to more ADR, but they’ve done little to support it, passing the blame to politicians.

Another player that has been dragging its feet is the education system. Our society’s addiction to lawyers has been compared (by me) to hiring brain surgeons to trim our nose hairs. That isn’t going to change unless we add an R to the three Rs– Readin’, ‘ritin’, ‘rithmetic and reasoning.

Nobody is going to get through life without a dispute. That’s a problem. A lawyer can’t solve a problem any more than a doctor can cure a cold.

Turn the problem into pneumonia, as in take it to court, and now the lawyer can get to work. The end result will be a winner and a sore loser.

Had both sides been reasonable, and sat down with a mediator, it would have been little more than a case of sniffles — and saved a lot of money.

Our political leaders continue to balk at funding such programs, saying there isn’t enough money. Instead, they are building more courtrooms and bigger prisons and feeding the folly of zero tolerance under the title: “Tough on crime.”

The books are available at Singing Pebbles at 202 Main St., or at lulu.com.

They’ll start appearing in other outlets this week.

Reprinted with the express permission of: “Ottawa Citizen”, a division of Postmedia Network Inc,