Clayton Ruby, the Canadian civil rights lawyer who for decades took on some of the country’s most notable and high-profile cases, was remembered Wednesday as a force in the legal world who changed lives through his advocacy and left an irreversible mark on the justice system.
Ruby, 80, died Tuesday afternoon surrounded by his family, his law firm said Wednesday. In a statement, Ruby Shiller Enenajor DiGiuseppe said it is mourning the loss of its leader and mentor, a “dedicated advocate for human rights, a champion of the underdog and a loving friend.”
Joy Cheskes remembers working with Ruby over two years in the mid-2000s as he fought on her behalf and that of several others to prevent the Ontario government from unsealing confidential adoption records.
The Toronto lawyer’s office had offered to take on the case, and filed a constitutional challenge of a new provincial law that would have retroactively released records so birth parents and adoptees could access information about one another.
While she was initially nervous to meet him, Ruby was “just so calming and he had an air of confidence about him that made me feel confident,” Cheskes said in an interview from Stratford, Ont., on Wednesday.
“We were just walking in blind and so to have the lion of the legal world take this on for us, it was truly remarkable.”
At some point in the process, Cheskes asked the lawyer a key question: did he think they would win? “Clayton said, ‘I can’t say. All I know is that we’re on the right side,”‘ she said.
The law was struck down in 2007 days after it took effect, ensuring Cheskes’s privacy was protected, she said.
“He was a very important person to so many people,” she said. “He was a lawyer working for the rights of everyday people and he changed people’s lives.”
Stephanie DiGiuseppe, a partner at Ruby’s firm, said Ruby “loved life, he loved people.”
“He understood justice and he fought for it. He made the world a better place,” she said in a tweet. “Clay was funny, kind, and completely original. We will not see his like again. Rest in peace, dear friend.”
Others in the legal, political and advocacy communities also expressed their grief and paid tribute to Ruby’s extensive legacy.
Ruby was a “true giant of the Canadian bar,” federal Justice Minister David Lametti said on Twitter.
“His decades of principled advocacy have left an indelible mark on our justice system and Canadian society. My sincere condolences to his loved ones on his passing.”
York University, where Ruby was an alumnus, offered condolences to his family and friends.
“Known for his activism as a civil rights lawyer, he exemplified the commitment to driving positive change,” the school’s president and vice-chancellor, Rhonda Lenton, wrote in a statement.
Ruby, who received the Order of Canada in 2005, was involved in several landmark cases in his decades-long career.
Among those he represented were abortion rights advocate Dr. Henry Morgentaler, as well as Guy Paul Morin, who was wrongfully convicted in the killing of Christine Jessop before being exonerated in 1995.
In Toronto, Ruby was involved in a conflict-of-interest case that sought to have then-mayor Rob Ford removed from office.
He also represented the surviving Dionne quintuplets in negotiating a settlement with the Ontario government, which had taken them from their cash-strapped parents in the 1930s and put them on display for tourists in a type of attraction across the street from the family home.
The sisters received a $4-million settlement from the Ontario government in the 1990s after raising concerns about the alleged mismanagement of a trust fund that had been set up to provide for their future.
Also in the 1990s, Ruby represented former MP Svend Robinson, who was present in 1994 at the then-illegal medically assisted death of right-to-die advocate Sue Rodriguez. In the end, Robinson was not charged in the case.
Robinson said in a tweet Wednesday that he was “heartbroken” by Ruby’s death, calling him a “dear friend” and a “giant in the legal profession, pillar of the progressive community, and a fine and decent man, a mensch.”