The last time I saw Earl Shuman was in a crowded, noisy, mid-town cafe, the kind of place he must have abhorred, being a long-time country resident, and recently retired. But it was the venue chosen by the journalist I had arranged for Earl to meet.
A front-page story and a major media investigation into his case is something Earl wanted to expose the injustice (the “fraud”, as he put it) which happened to him. After 27 years of fighting for truth and fairness, he wanted to change the system which had mercilessly crushed him. He had recently met a young couple he related to, who were experiencing some of the same problems he’d had, and he felt increased urgency to expose injustices and get the system fixed. So others wouldn’t suffer like he and his family.
In a nutshell, Earl’s case was this: he bought a new home, found construction defects in it, asked the Tarion Warranty Corporation to fix it under the government’s warranty, but after years of legal wrangling it was decided Earl was the builder since he’d supplied more than 25% of the overall value of the home. Even if the home had been under warranty, he was told he was out of time in reporting defects. No coverage. A dentist by profession, the law decided he was a builder.
He once described it to me his way: if you buy a new home and install a 24-karat gold toilet in it, you’re the builder because you’ve contributed more than 25% of the overall value of the home. This “legal test”, which once bore his name, the Shuman Test, seems absurd to most of us as laypeople, like arguing what the definition of “is” is.
The wrong-doers in his case walked away scot free, the warranty corporation sided with the builder, leaving Earl and his family with years of anguish, heavy legal costs, and construction defects. In an excessively harsh punishment, he told me he’d spent a week in jail for refusing to pay Tarion’s legal fees.
He found crucial parts of his hearing missing from the official record with no credible explanation, the case law he found in a confused and contradictory state, and aggressive backroom legal strategies were used to defeat the consumer protection intention of the “Act”, the “Ontario New Home Warranties Plan Act” (ONHWPA).
For 27 years of his life, he fought to expose what most of us would see as absurdities and injustices.
It’s hard to hear Earl’s story and not be shocked that this could happen in Ontario. He made a presentation to a packed media room at Queen’s Park in December, 2014, and attendees came away shaking their heads in disgust at how consumer protection legislation could go so terribly wrong. Tarion is the government-appointed regulator and licensor of builders, and Earl rightly looked to this authority for consumer protection, fairness, and justice.
I remember saying to him, it sounds like we’re living in Russia or something, how could this happen in Ontario? No, its different in Russia, he replied, they don’t tell you there it’s a democracy.
For the meeting with the journalist, Earl had painstakingly prepared a detailed timeline of events relating to his case on a large scroll the size of a coffee table, all meticulously hand-written like a Da Vinci scientific manuscript. Under all the order and detail, he was quietly seething with rage.
That’s perhaps why some people would dismiss Earl and break off contact. He was mad as h..ll, had every right to be, and wasn’t going to take it any more. His take-no-prisoners, uncompromising manner could scare away people who might have helped. Might have. But the months of research, high cost, and legal firewalls required to do a series of investigative articles into this complex, lengthy subject must have deterred most journalists, and their short-staffed, cash-strapped organizations. Go see the movie “Spotlight”, I told him, and you’ll see how tough it is for the media to take on the big bear subjects.
Sadly for most of us, being right and being able to prove you’re right in court, are two different things. This is the legal business, not the justice business, we’re told. But despite all these roadblocks, Earl still believed in the power of the media to expose injustices and get broken systems fixed. He inspired many of us as volunteer consumer advocates, and kept his faith in justice and the press. But he got little of either.
These are important values we’d like to continue to believe in. On this 1st anniversary of Earl’s passing, I want to thank his family for their tireless and lonely work to expose what happened to them, which hopefully will one day help new home buyers.
Part of the recent review of Tarion by Justice Douglas Cunningham in March 2017, with it’s 37 recommendations for major reform, are partly due to Earl’s and his wife Krista’s work over the last 27 years.
It’s fitting that a memorial scholarship in journalism now bears his name, as opposed to the legal test which crushed and humiliated him for so many years.
Sadly, the light went out last May. We hope to hold a candle to his work, and keep believing in the power of the press to keep the big guys honest.
“Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.” …. F. Scott Fitzgerald
– By Barbara Captijn, Consumer Advocate, Blogger