Edney speaks candidly with the Argus on being a lawyer, taking on big cases, big responsibilities, and scuba diving in the West Indies”
By Leah Ching, Staff Writer
Dennis Edney’s talk “The Rule of Law in an Age of Fear,” inspired a large gathering of students, Lakehead alumni, and members of the local community. Hosted by the LUSU Multicultural Centre at Lakehead last Friday night, Mr. Edney’s visit was much anticipated, with patrons arriving early to secure a good seat.
The Scotland native is most known for his involvement in the Omar Khadr case, as defence attorney for the Canadian citizen, who was captured in the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and held at Guantanamo Bay for ten years. Fifteen years old at the time of his capture, Omar Khadr is the youngest prisoner ever held at Guantanamo Bay.
In the legal field, Mr. Edney has shown dedication and commitment to jurisprudence and upholding the rule of law during his twenty-nine years of practice. Taking on the most challenging and controversial of cases, he has been recognized widely for his hard work. Having received the Canadian National Pro Bono Award and being named one of 50 Alberta’s most influential people, Mr Edney is not short of awards and recognitions for his sincere dedication to seeing justice upheld equally for all.
The high-profile Canadian defence lawyer arrived in Thunder Bay after a busy day of travelling. Arriving at the venue with a Starbucks cup in hand, he sat down with The Argus in the back row of a crowded auditorium to answer a few questions before heading on stage.
Eloquent and extremely humble, Mr. Edney’s first visit to Thunder Bay was a whirlwind, no time for sightseeing. Talking about my tropical island hometown and subsequent move to the north, Mr Edney noted that he had in past scuba dived off the west coast of Tobago and spent lots of time in the West Indies, but was yet to sightsee Northwestern Ontario (upon which I duly noted that a trip back up north to explore the outdoors was in order.) With less than thirty minutes on the clock before he was scheduled to get on stage, he jokingly told The Argus to make sure the questions were challenging. Here are a few experts from our interview.
Do you have any tips for students studying to be defence lawyers in the north? What can aspiring lawyers like myself learn from Omar Khadr’s case?
Firstly, we lawyers have a duty far beyond making money. Our duty is to commit ourselves to justice. That’s what distinguishes us from being business people. We have this special designation assigned to us, called “lawyer” and people relying upon us. Therefore, our duty is not just to represent people for a fee, but also to be a pillar of the community. As a layer, you are the person the community comes to for help when facing the most fundamental issues. It’s a great responsibility.
I don’t consider myself “some great lawyer.” Just recently I was declared one of the top 25 lawyers in Canada. That’s all numbers. What do I think I am? I think I’m a hard worker, and I think I am brave. I try not to be foolish, but I use law as a tool.
I say to students, I am a powerful lawyer. Even though I am just from Edmonton. Why am I a powerful lawyer? Because I use law to temper excessive power. So, I’ve taken on the United States, and I’ve taken on Canada… And I’ve taken on military commissions. I had not a clue what I was doing yet, but through the collegiality of law, I was able to pick the brains of the best and gain an understanding of the legal principles that I needed in order to further advance my clients interests.
So never be frightened to take something on. I say this jokingly but… “I’ve been kicked out of some of the best courts you can find, and you’ll find me back there tomorrow.” And that’s your job as a lawyer.
Did you find it intimidating? Taking on the U.S and Canada?
Of course. I find it even more intimidating as a student in court. I find it intimidating taking on cases where you have the other side –this big firm teaming up with three lawyers – then there’s me. I’m always representing the man in the street. That’s a bit intimidating, of course. But you know, that’s part of the game. I think feeling a bit intimidating and a bit scared is okay. It gives you a sense that no matter what, whether it’s your first year or twenty-ninth year, you’re there to win, you’re wrapped up in your case, and that’s a good thing.
What inspires you take on challenging and controversial cases like ones you’ve taken up in past?
My advice to young lawyers has always been, forget about the money. Go for the cases. The cases make your name, and then you can charge a fee. So, I was bored when I started off in law. You’re doing a little bit of criminal, a little bit of family, a little bit of real estate, but I wanted more. I wanted to do more. I’ve always been for the underdog because I think of myself as a working class boy. My parents left school at twelve years of age – we struggled. And so, as a working class boy from Scotland, you carry a bit of a chip on your shoulder.
In the past you’ve been critical of the Harper government. You’ve been quoted in the media as calling Mr Harper a racist and a bigot. And that caused a lot of media frenzy.
Well, I called former prime minster Harper that once. I chose not to do that again because I don’t wish the public to think that there’s something personal between him and I, because then I’m not doing my client a service. Instead of the public understanding that I’m talking on behalf of my client, they’ll be saying, “Oh there he goes again.” And so, I think there are times when you have to be measured on how you wish to get across.
I was tired that day, I answered from my own sense of honesty. After all these years of trying to get Omar out, and this government had challenged me every bit of the way. I believed that the Harper government was bigoted, but I don’t regret that. And I say that you have to be very careful. I’ve said to him personally, when he puts his children to bed, does he consider whether he wants his children to be treated like Omar Khadr? So there’s times to use that flamboyant type of language, but don’t be overstated. Then you’re not helping your client.
Do you think there’s hope for change under Prime Minister Trudeau?
Well, it can’t be any worse. We were heading toward a pretty fascist society.
This country, as much as I love it is quite apathetic. Everywhere I went over the election period, everyone was saying, “What are we going to do if Harper gets in? Well I say, we allowed him in for nine years, we gave him majority governance.” I would challenge any of you tonight… Knock on your local politicians door, ask him what he’s doing.”
I guess my point tonight, what I want to say to young people, is that we’ve made a mess of the world. We’ve left you with a mess. It’s up to you to change. What I hope is that you’re not like your parents, on a general basis.
You want to ask questions, quite like you’re doing. You want to ask why.
You have to challenge. Challenge nicely, but challenge strongly.