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Eye On Northwestern Ontario

|Written By Julio Gomes

Over the past two years, members of Thunder Bay’s legal community have gotten together to stage a play as a fundraiser for the city’s professional theatre company.

The view from Thunder Bay of the spectacular Sleeping Giant. Photo by Lori Fox Rossi

The sight of lawyers from various specialties mixing in a friendly atmosphere - with each other, with judges, and with members of the Crown attorney’s office - was so successful it started a trend that sees other professions try their hand at the thespian arts.

As well as being a profitable endeavor, that project also provides a revealing glimpse at how lawyers get along. If there’s one thing that distinguishes the legal community in the Lakehead, it’s the collegial relationship of its practitioners, say some veteran members.

“Thunder Bay has a very high level of professionalism, in terms of people knowing each other. There’s constant contact between us. The Thunder Bay Law Association is, in my view, one of the best, if not the best, in the province,” says Anthony Carfagnini.

Carfagnini has been president of the local law association and was the region’s representative on the County and District Law Presidents’ Association for two years. In these roles, he’s seen and heard tales that suggest lawyers don’t always get along.

“Thunder Bay is the only place I’ve practised, but I didn’t know how rare [our level of collegiality] is until I talked to people in other areas and they say, ‘You do that?’ ”

Veteran defence counsel Lee Baig recalls sitting on a provincial committee and in dealing with Crown counsel and defence lawyers observing a “total failure of respect.” In some instances, he recalls the parties “absolutely hated” each other to the extent they couldn’t properly take care of business.

Because the legal fraternity in Thunder Bay is so small and lawyers encounter each other frequently on social as well as professional occasions, they tend to find it easier to get things done when at work.

“In large measure it leads to more resolution of difficult matters,” Baig says of the benefit of such relationships.

That means criminal matters in the region are probably resolved more expeditiously than elsewhere in Ontario, where some courts have become backlogged.

“I know in other jurisdictions everything goes to trial. It used to be the case here, and it isn’t anymore,” Baig says. “That’s due in large measure to fruitful discussion between Crown counsel and defence.”

The Thunder Bay Law Association currently counts 165 members, the majority of whom still practise. Many of them deal with issues close to as well as outside of the city, much of it related to the region’s numerous First Nation communities and the influx of natives into the city.

“One of the big things around here is Aboriginal law,” states Michael Harris, president of the Thunder Bay Law Association. “Recently there have been land claim issues. But there have been other issues such as highway blockages and legal proceedings that arise from that. There’s a lot of construction issues with respect to buildings going up on aboriginal communities, as well as labour issues, usually when there’s a change on council” and band staff is dismissed.

Thunder Bay, at the head of Lake Superior, is the largest city in Northwestern Ontario, with a metro population of 120,000. While the economic underpinnings of forestry, manufacturing, and grain handling have been shaken, it’s still the region’s magnet in terms of work and play.

It also boasts arguably the largest law firms between Winnipeg and Sudbury. The biggest in Thunder Bay is Carrel + Partners LLP, with 15 lawyers on its roster. It’s followed by Weiler Maloney Nelson and its stable of 13 lawyers.

“Any law firm in Thunder Bay, relative to southern Ontario, would be a small firm,” concedes Harris, of Cheadles LLP, a mid-sized firm in local terms with a complement of six lawyers.

Ross B. Judge, who was called to the bar in 1967 and serves as counsel at Weiler Maloney Nelson, dubs the nature of legal work here “living in the trenches.”

“Once you get out of the Golden Horseshoe, the practice of law is quite similar,” Judge says. “The average practitioner tends to have individual clients and small shareholder clients. You don’t tend to have the multinationals.

“We don’t tend to get the multimillion-dollar mergers and we don’t do a lot in the way of cross-border trade.”

The history of his firm is indicative of a more down-home nature. Weiler Maloney Nelson traces its roots to Bernie and Biff Weiler, the latter of whom started his career in the post-Second World War era by pitching a tent in the woods near Geraldton and doing mining-related work.

Today, there are eight partners, none of whom are named Weiler, Maloney, or Nelson. The managing partner is Garth O’Neill.

“The last Maloney, Victor Maloney, retired in the late 1990s and he maintained an office in the [former] Chapple building. But he wasn’t really practising law. He was looking after his properties and rental investments,” Judge recalls.

Nicholas Pustina has spent 33 years at Carrel + Partners. Now he’s “just an employee,” who happens to be nearing his 50th year in the profession. He started practising in the Lakehead after graduating from Osgoode Hall Law School when his pal Bob Zelinski invited him up for a visit. He was so impressed with the community spirit he decided to stay. (Zelinski would later be named a Superior Court judge.)

His earliest reminiscences are of hard-working European immigrants coming to sign off on real estate deals with paper bags clutched in their arms.

“One thing that’s always amazed me, and I thought is unique, is the trust people place in the legal profession,” Pustina says with amazement. “They walk in, give a young lawyer $40,000 in cash and don’t even bat an eye.”

From such humble beginnings would come lasting relationships.

“If you met a dad, then mom and dad brought in the kids to buy houses and then mom and dad got a will,” Pustina says. “You developed a real family practice.”

The Carrel firm is named for John Carrel (1924-2000). It traces its history to the 19th century. The current banner, Carrel + Partners, was unfurled in the early 1990s.

“We decided to do something so there’s no name change every time a lawyer left. I suggested Carrel and Pustina, but got voted down,” Pustina says with a chuckle.

One of their senior lawyers, Kris Knutsen, is well regarded across the country. His most notable work was as counsel at the Dryden air crash inquiry (which led to the requirement that all planes be de-iced before takeoff) and motor vehicle insurance claims (the Dierksen case).

Harris points to his former colleague Laird Scrimshaw, whose representation of homeowners who sustained damage in their basements due to sewer backups led to a change in the Municipal Act.

Pustina’s list of prominent Thunder Bay lawyers includes Donald Ferris and Stephen Kovanchak, John Hornak, John Erickson, Greg Birston, and the Shanks brothers (Donald, Douglas, and William), as well as John Illingworth in family law.

“The nice thing about the bar here is, if you’ve got a problem you can pick up the phone and say, . . . ‘What do you think?’ ” says Pustina of the camaraderie.

On the criminal side, a small circle of defence lawyers tends to handle the bulk of cases. Gun violence is relatively uncommon in Thunder Bay - most cases of aggravated assault involve edged weapons.

One notable distinction is that the Trans-Canada Highway becomes a two-lane road from Thunder Bay east to Nipigon. As it snakes along the rugged north shore of Lake Superior, it becomes a natural “chokepoint” that has led police to make traffic stops that resulted in the seizure of hundreds of pounds of marijuana as well as significant amounts of heroin and cocaine.

In that discipline, few probably have a higher profile than Baig. He was called to the bar in 1965 and figures he’s now handled more than 100 murder trials, including cases in Toronto and Ottawa.

His best-known work may be the notorious “bawdy house” trial, where four police officers and two madams were charged with attempting to obstruct justice in the late 1980s. Needless to say, they were all acquitted.

Most recently, Baig has gained national attention in assisting Cheryl Everall and Kimberly Kim, the Thunder Bay women whose names were linked to the Mexican Riviera murder of Toronto-area couple Nancy and Dominic Ianiero.

Despite the city’s geographic isolation, Harris says the Thunder Bay bar regularly works with lawyers from across the province. Also, the association’s continuing legal education program sees guest speakers visit Thunder Bay to discuss issues related to real estate, corporate, civil, or family law.

“I know we interact well here. I know there’s a lot of respect for Thunder Bay lawyers in Toronto,” Harris says. “We have a well-respected bar up here. That not only comes from personal interaction, but also because of the provincewide continuing education clinics.”

Ultimately what sets the law profession in the Lakehead apart from other urban centres is the realization that there’s more to life than just work. A glance out the window at the splendor of the Sleeping Giant or an outing to a ski hill helps put things in perspective.

“That’s the advantage of being in a smaller community,” Harris says.

“The pressures are very much here,” Judge adds. “They come and go, but by and large they’re not there all the time.”

Leon Nicol, for example, spent 25 years in the Crown attorney’s office and in 1998 moved into private practice. He’s seen the work from both sides and agrees the lifestyle issue is a big consideration.

“We get to live in Thunder Bay, where a cottage is less than a half-hour away from the city, where skiing and fishing opportunities are just outside the city,” he says. “That’s one of the pluses of practising law in Thunder Bay.”

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