Windsor’s Paroian champion of ‘little guy’

WINDSOR - Leon Paroian, one of Windsor’s most colourful lawyers, died May 10. He was 71. He had been suffering various illnesses in recent years, including diabetes, prostate cancer, and had undergone cardiac surgery.

Paroian, physically a large man who had a booming voice - which he seemed to use for effect to articulate a point, confront an opponent, or browbeat the opposition if he thought they were wrong - was well known for the widely varied cases he represented as a civil litigator, many of which became almost iconic in southwestern Ontario.

He also was a passionate defender of his clients’ rights, and often became personal friends with them and their families. And, while he often was described as a champion of “the little guy,” especially in lawsuits or in zoning and expropriation cases, many of his clients were well-established businesspeople or corporations whom he defended against what he considered the arrogance of power by governments and government agencies.

His most famous cases include the battle between a farmer’s land rights and a municipal airport’s air space; a group of landowners confronting Ontario Hydro’s right-of-way; and representing the family of a man wrongly staked-out and killed by the Ontario Provincial Police.

He also was counsel for property-owners and businesses in two key Windsor redevelopment projects, including the construction of Casino Windsor. He was instrumental in helping change legislation allowing Sunday shopping in Ontario.

And almost up to the time of his death he represented the Ambassador Bridge - which connects Windsor and Detroit - against the City of Windsor over property the city froze to prevent the bridge from developing a new access road.

Paroian’s commanding presence, passion, and a reputation for defending “lost causes” resulted in a film about his life called Leon’s Law by filmmaker Andy Drouillard, which had its premiere at a gala in Windsor in 2003.

In more recent years Paroian championed victims of a little-known disorder, pulmonary hypertension, which claimed his daughter Sherry Lynn Oliver in 2004. When she was diagnosed with the disease in the 1990s Paroian pulled out all the stops to create the Pulmonary Hypertension Society of Ontario.

He got on the phone and called lawyers throughout the province, quickly raising $50,000, and later $2 million for research into the lung condition. His first wife, Sandra, also died of the disease. Dr. John Granton, director of Toronto’s University Health Network’s pulmonary hypertension program, says Paroian “nearly single-handedly raised money and provided support for the program. Just because he was Leon he was able to get it done.”

Paroian, who had a farm just outside Windsor, raised horses for provincial quarter horse competitions. His farming background gave him a down-to-earth personality, often exhibiting an “aw shucks” manner that was deceptively effective. “He always liked to claim he was just a dumb farmer and he would try to size up his opponent and use whatever they said against him,” says former professional colleague and member of Parliament Susan Whelan.

Paroian graduated from Osgoode Hall in 1961 and articled for Cliff Sutts, now with well-known litigator Harvey Strosberg of Windsor’s Sutts Strosberg LLP. “He was an exuberant type of guy, always very pleasant, loud, flamboyant, a rambunctious character, very likable.

Even if he were in opposition you couldn’t help but admire the guy,” Sutts says. “Even more so than any other counsel, he threw himself into the fray as if he were a partner with his client.”

Sutts remembers two decades ago when he and Paroian were asked by the Windsor mayor to represent the city in a challenge to the Sunday shopping prohibition. “And I think the result in that case led to the changes in the legislation which opened up Sunday shopping in Ontario,” he says.

Ray Colautti, who articled under Paroian and worked with him for 20 years, says Paroian was often seen as “bombastic” and “dominating,” but “that’s only part of the story.” He says Paroian “was a great reader of people and personalities, and he knew when he had to be aggressive.

But he also could be quite compassionate and generous . . . he knew when to fight and when to back off, he knew when to negotiate and when to settle.” Colautti says Paroian was a quick study. “He could take facts and analyze them and absorb them. He would come up with just strikes of genius.”
Examples of which resulted in two legendary cases.

In one, Paroian represented a farmer who had land near Chatham’s municipal airport. The airport wanted zoning restrictions on what the farm could be used for so as not to interfere with the flights of planes. “They were trying to take all his land rights without expropriating [the property],” Colautti says. So, rather than tie proceedings up for years, Paroian suggested the farmer build a silo, effectively interfering with the flight pathway. The result? The airport authority was forced to purchase the land.

Another was a battle between a group of landowners and Ontario Hydro. Anyone driving between Chatham and Windsor along Highway 401 will see the consequence. Out of nowhere, a Hydro power line advances to the highway, then runs along it for several kilometres, then turns away. While Hydro had the right to expropriate the land, it didn’t have right of access through farmers’ fields.

“The courts upheld Hydro’s right to expropriate the land but Leon never gave up fighting and found ways to persuade Ontario Hydro that it would be better to put the hydro line somewhere else,” Colautti said. It’s the distance the line travels beside Highway 401 that represents the detour around the clients’ properties.

Colautti called these remedies “quintessentially Leon,” someone who thought “outside the box” while having “a certain amount of moxy, the boldness to assert that, and then seeing it through to the end.”

In 1989 Paroian represented the family of Bernard Bastien, whose house was surrounded by an OPP tactical squad that had the wrong address. In an incident that drew national attention, the police shot and killed Bastien. The family received a $2.3-million settlement. Paroian befriended the family and even played Santa Claus to their children.

Whelan says that, whether Paroian represented the proverbial little guy or a corporate client, what made him effective was that he “always tried to be on what he believed was the right side of an issue or what was the right thing to do from a justice and fairness standpoint.”

Paroian’s practical streak translated into politics. Although he supported the Progressive Conservative party, at least provincially, he threw his support behind Liberal Whelan’s candidacy in the 2004 federal election. After seeing a Windsor Star headline suggesting Whelan’s campaign was failing, he called her to ask what he could do. He became her chief fundraiser.

“He believed that I was working on behalf of the area and that I was effective,” Whelan says. When she lost the election Paroian offered her a job at his firm.

Charles Harnick, Ontario’s attorney general from 1995-1999, suggests Paroian was a point man in Windsor for making the legal community’s views known. When Harnick made visits to Windsor, “Leon was always there to greet me . . . and to make sure that I heard what other members of the bar were saying.”

A big issue at the time was implementation of case management, tested widely in Windsor, and there were concerns about the disappearance of the office of the master. He says Paroian wasn’t shy about letting “you know what you should be thinking and what you should be doing to solve problems.”

After graduating from Osgoode, Paroian was an assistant Crown attorney from 1963 to 1966. He was made Queen’s Counsel in 1975 and received the Law Society Medal in 2006, a citation that uncharacteristically left him mum. “I’m not often lost for words,” he told the Windsor Star, “but I am by this.”

Paroian also had a strong relationship with the rank-and-file police. He was longtime counsel to the Windsor Police Association as well as its provincial counterpart.

Harry De Jong, former WPA vice president, credits Paroian’s astuteness with helping tailor contracts and guiding relations with the local police board in a highly conciliatory way. “Our association has always been in the top, certainly across the province and most of the time across the country, as far as wages and benefits,” De Jong says. And, unlike many other associations, Windsor has had next to no arbitration cases.

“Leon spanned some 10 presidents and a whole bunch of directors and I don’t know how many chiefs and how many members of the service board,” De Jong says. “But his advice and counsel . . . you know, he often told us what we needed to hear as opposed to what we wanted to hear.”

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