In 2013, Marcus McCann spent the Labour Day weekend at his boyfriend Paul Sutton’s family cottage. The couple had met a few months before and attended a string of protests together. One opposed the closure of an abortion clinic; another took aim at Canada’s decision to take part in the Sochi Olympics, even though Russia had just passed a law banning so-called “gay propaganda.” So it’s no surprise that, in between canoeing and hiking, the men spent the weekend making flyers for a rally — this time, one that was protesting the accreditation of the law school at Trinity Western University, a Christian institution that forces students to sign a covenant that forbids sex outside of heterosexual marriage.
Fast-forward four years. McCann and Sutton, a lobbyist, now live together in Toronto’s Little Portugal. And this past September, they were back at the cottage. But this time, McCann was a lawyer. Instead of making posters, he was writing a factum for the Supreme Court of Canada case that will finally decide the fate of Trinity Western’s law school. He’s representing one of the interveners, LGBTOUT, a queer student organization. “Now that I’m a lawyer,” says McCann, “I have a different set of tools in the toolbox.” This November, he was in Ottawa for oral arguments. Now he awaits the ruling.
How fast life can change. McCann grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Hamilton. In 2001, he went to the University of Ottawa and worked on the side. A brief roll call of the jobs he held: mushroom farmer, demolition worker, Subway sandwich artist. During his time at Subway, he had his first brush with the law. The franchisee refused to pay extra for statutory holidays or to compensate employees for their mandatory 10-hour training session. McCann led a complaint with the Ministry of Labour. He won. Both he and his colleagues received cheques of between $60 and $300. The victory made it clear, for the first time, that if you understand the legal system, you have power. McCann addressed a specific wrong and earned a tangible result.
But McCann wasn’t considering law school. At least, not yet. He wanted to be a writer. He wrote poetry and, over the years, published three collections. He also contributed to the student newspaper. Upon graduation, in 2006, he became a full-time freelance news reporter, covering Parliament and the Supreme Court.
After a couple years, he moved to Toronto to join Xtra, a newspaper focused on LGBT issues, and soon became managing editor.
The job was formative. “I’m drawn to queer activism because I’m gay, sure,” he says. “But also because of the persistent inequalities I covered at Xtra.” His reporting on the systemic discrimination against the LGBT community — in the workplace, at the hands of the police — pushed him toward activism. But as a journalist, he felt like he was on the sidelines. When he covered lawyers, on the other hand, he envied how they could get into the trenches and fight for change. So, in 2011, he went to law school. “I had a really rosy view of the ability of lawyers to effect social change.”
Once McCann was called to the bar, he joined Symes Street & Millard LLP, a human-rights and employment-law firm, as an associate. At the firm’s office, the foosball table and reclaimed wood floors in the reception area give the place a distinct startup feel. McCann’s tousled hair and turquoise slacks fit right in.
At the firm, McCann divides his time between casework that keeps the lights on and his own passion projects. He’s already fought several legal battles for LGBT rights. There is, of course, his work on the Trinity Western case. And last year, when McCann heard about a sting operation in Etobicoke’s Marie Curtis Park that ended with 72 men being charged with trespassing and engaging in sexual activity in public, he took action. In his view, the police targeted members of the gay community who posed no risk to anyone. “This was yet another case of homophobic behaviour on behalf of the Toronto police,” says McCann. He persuaded a network of defence lawyers to offer the men facing charges pro bono representation. Everyone who contacted the legal team for representation had their charges withdrawn.
Ben Millard, a partner at Symes Street & Millard, is proud of McCann’s work. “All of us view law as both a profession and a tool that can effect positive change,” he says. “We want our lawyers to take on pro bono work.”
For McCann, it’s a bonus that his regular caseload has a human-rights bent. Many of his files involve people with disabilities in employment-law disputes. “It’s not just something I do to pay the bills,” he says. “It’s about helping people at a really difficult time in their lives.”
McCann still sees the power of a law degree, but, going forward, he may modify his expectations. “I’m committed to legal reform, but it’s not the gunslinger thing I thought it would be,” he says. “The law moves very slowly.”
Timeline of a human-rights lawyer
2001: Marcus McCann graduates from high school and leaves Hamilton to study at the University of Ottawa.
2006: With his undergrad finished, McCann begins his career as a freelance journalist, with a focus on news reporting. Then he becomes the managing editor at Xtra, based in Toronto.
2009: McCann publishes his first poetry collection, Soft Where, with Chaudiere Books.
2011: McCann decides to quit journalism and go to law school at the University of Toronto. His goal is to build a career that pushes for the rights of LGBT people.
2015: He joins Symes Street & Millard LLP. The firm offers meaningful human-rights work and allows him to take on cases he cares about. “I’m very lucky,” he says.
This story is from our Winter 2017 Issue.
Photography by Nick Wong