The tragic circumstances surrounding the passing of Earl Shuman last week are one of the reasons I decided to write this piece.
For those who didn’t know him, he fought for 27 years to rectify injustices he saw in the Ontario government monopoly, Tarion Warranty Corporation, and the abysmal access to justice problems faced by ordinary people trying to get their homes fixed under Tarion and the License Appeal Tribunal.
Earl took on the legal establishment by challenging the lunacy of some Tarion case law and its heavy-handed use of the justice system. He explained one of the absurdities to me this way: if you buy a new home and install a 24 carat gold toilet in it, you’re the builder of the home under law because you contributed more than a certain dollar amount to the home’s overall value. So even if you’re a dentist, you can be deemed a builder under Ontario law. He called this the Shuman Test “Fraud“. Many cases have been decided since his own case years ago following this principle, which sounds like something out of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”.
I met Earl Shuman and his wife at Queen’s Park several years ago at one of the many meetings to try to bring transparency and accountability to Tarion. Real reforms have not been made to this government monopoly in over 40 years. Builders interests are the best understood by policy-makers; consumers are often labelled “unscrupulous”, trouble-makers, whiners, or malcontents who wouldn’t be happy with the Taj Mahal. Builders, on the other hand, are politically well-connected, they have the loudest microphones, the deepest pockets, and lobbyists and lawyers to make their views well understood by policy-makers.
Earl was engaged in a Sisyphean task up against these Goliaths, rolling a huge rock uphill only to have it come crashing back down on him each time. He didn’t play by the rules, but he often tried to. Many of us who are accustomed to crusty, irritable, feisty figures learned with time how to read him. He was a rule-breaker, rubbed many people the wrong way, but he knew that nice, polite, people seldom bring about real change.
He attended a Tarion Review town hall meeting a few weeks ago. When he saw me come in, he motioned for me to sit down next to him. He brought a well-used copy of the Ontario New Home Warranties Plan Act which Tarion administers for the public on behalf of government. He read from it to the attendees, ministry lawyers and officials present. He pointed out the intent of the legislature was not to have the law drift so far away from its consumer protection intent. Since Tarion makes its own regulations, with oversight as thin as a spider’s web, he knew this was flawed, outdated legislation. He knew this was the 900-pound gorilla in the room.
He drove from Cobourg the night before, suffering from a cold, paid for his own hotel room to attend the impossible weekday timing of the meeting from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. He tried to keep his years of anger and frustration at bay, tried to keep his cool. He did. Giving me a big hug when he left, he thanked me for being there and contributing. I wrote him a short e-mail afterward saying he’d done well under what we all knew were difficult circumstances.
Earl wanted these injustices to be exposed by the media in a sustained and front-page way like the press covered the Ghomeshi, Ford, and Duffy scandals, and various messy society divorces. Journalists often told us they wanted “sexy stories”. This was a decidedly un-sexy story, until you buy a new home and find out how flawed and out-dated the policies are which govern this important financial decision in your life, buying a new home.
Earl asked me last November to keep a file of all the documents relevant to his 27-year work, and correspondence with senior officials. A few times he said, now eerily meaningful to me, that he wanted to make sure someone would take his work forward and all these years wouldn’t go to waste, “If something ever happens to me…“, he said several times. I assured him I have well-organized files, not as extensive as his pool-table full of documents, but all his years of work wouldn’t be lost.
He’d from time to time e-mail me and ask what I thought of a letter he’d sent to a top official, or what I thought of his Supreme Court of Canada application, for example. He’d say to me, see if you can spot the game-changer words in this document. Anyone in our communication groups who’s worked on Tarion/LAT issues could pick out those words.
Earl knew every nook and cranny of the legislation, the Criminal Code, all the legalese, the double-speak, and the political games. He used to commiserate with me how hard it is to write to politicians and journalists, how achingly long it takes to craft a persuasive, well-researched e-mail, and wait endlessly for no answer. Many of us struggled with this, without the benefit of PR people, legal advisers, and researchers, all we have is our sense of right and wrong, and our kitchen tables. Over the years Earl became an expert at clear, well-documented, persuasive writing; though his style was lengthy, he mastered it.
I suggested he write a book, and use social media to his advantage. The press was obviously not covering these problems in-depth and in a sustained way as he knew they deserved. He looked forward to his retirement in a few months, and promised he’d do more work when he finally had more free time. Then you will really see me fly, he told me in February.
A few months ago he retired. He attended the Tarion Review town hall meeting on April 5th, his birthday, and according to his wife, Krista, he descended after that into a black hole of frustration and despair.
The news of his sudden death and the circumstances surrounding it, described to me by his shaken wife, caught me off guard and made me cry like a grade school kid. Earl’s story is heart-breaking and complex. He worked on justice and consumer protection issues for almost 30 years. Many of the injustices he exposed are still festering, some getting much worse. Too many consumers continue to suffer under builder-biased policies administered by a monopoly claiming it’s protecting consumers, while protecting the builders it’s supposed to regulate.
Earl and Krista drew together a communication group of concerned consumers determined to fight for reforms to Tarion, the LAT, and justice. All of us will make sure his 27 years of work were not in vain.
To the Ministry of Municipal Affairs/Housing official who inquired several months ago why these issues were so urgent:”Did anyone die?”, she asked.
Well, actually yes, someone has.
In memory of Dr. Earl M. Shuman, April 5th 1951 – May 6th, 2016