Mtre Harry Pierre-Étienne

Mtre Harry Pierre-Étienne : Persevering with a smile
By Mélanie Dugré, lawyer
(Article published on February 20, 2018)

Harry Pierre-Étienne left his native Haiti in 1972. He remembers the beauty of the land and being somewhat of a naive teenager during a time when silence as well as pervasive fear weighed heavily on a country under the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier.

When he came to Montreal to join a brother and a sister, he fell under the city’s spell, rolling in the snow despite the aggressive form of glaucoma he already had.

The following year, after permanently losing his sight, Harry had to leave school to study at the Louis Braille Institute. He learned the art of getting around and reading braille, which was no small endeavour considering the lack of sensitivity in his fingertips after having practised judo intensively. Now sporting a white cane, he rolled up his sleeves and quickly learned to live with his condition. With a bit of self-deprecating humour, he was able to come to terms with some people’s steely stares. To a passer-by who asked him if he was using a white cane “for real or for fun”, he retorted with a straight face that it was “for fun, of course.”

Harry learned the hard way that most public places were poorly equipped for people with mobility problems or disabilities. The challenges were even greater when he attended his courses and took notes, which he managed to do by using a cassette tape recorder and repeating in a low voice what his teachers were saying.

With a college diploma in hand from CEGEP Ahuntsic, Harry was wondering what to do next. An incident would determine his choice between law and history. Running to catch the bus one day, his braille typewriter accidentally hit a car parked partially on the sidewalk. At the behest of the angry driver, some police officers intervened awkwardly ordering Harry, who was trying to explain, to stop waving his arms around. In order to get out of the jam, Harry referred to a supposedly existing municipal by-law prohibiting parking on the sidewalk. In addition to calming the police officers                                                                                                                                   and settling the incident peacefully, the argument enabled young Harry to discover his interest in pleading cases and defending rights.

He therefore set out to get a B.A. from the Université de Montréal and championed the cause of accessibiIity, having found that there were serious problems in accessing educational materials as well as the various pavilions on the university campus. In 1982, he obtained a grant under the Canada Works program to raise the awareness of the University’s administration concerning the hardships encountered by students with disabilities. In addition to publishing articles on the subject in Le Pigeon Dissident and  Le Forum, he is a founding member of the Association des étudiants handicapés de l’Université de Montréal (Association of disabled students at the Université de Montréal).

A few decades later, when passing through the campus, Harry was moved to see the extent of the changes made over the years, several of which were the result of recommendations he had made as a technical adviser for the University, a position he had held until 1986.

After finishing the bar admission courses, Harry had to go through the difficult experience of finding a place to article. Although everyone saluted his courage and perseverance, no one offered him an articling opportunity. Troubled by this observation, he decided to change his tactics during an interview with the Bureau des substituts du procureur général du Québec (the office of Crown Prosecutors of the Attorney General, now known as the office of the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions (DPCP)) and asked from the outset that the questions concern his legal expertise and not his disability. His strategy paid off because Harry has been with the DPCP for more than 30 years. Well aware of the work and power that come with his position, he likes to recall his mother’s words: “It’s nice to be important but it even more important to be nice.”

For Harry, the DPCP is like a big family, where in spite of the occasional spat, people are closely knit. Among the highlights of his career, he feels privileged to have argued before the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Strecko (2009) 1 SCR 64. After an acquittal was entered by the Court of Quebec, convinced that the trial judge had misapplied the rules of law, he asked the Court of Appeal to set aside the trial decision and substitute a verdict of guilty. The Court of Appeal allowed his request, a decision affirmed by the Supreme Court. Even though he was unable to share this victory with the victim, who died during the court proceedings, he feels a sense of accomplishment.

An athlete with a black belt in judo, his exploits in 1977 won him the Sylvio Cator award, named after a Haitian Olympian, a model of energy and success.

Involved in his community, he serves on the ethics committee of Judo Canada, is a co-founder of the Congrès des avocats et juristes noirs du Québec, headed the Association des avocats et notaires noirs du Québec (Association of black notaries and lawyers of Quebec)—which he would earnestly like to see revived—and served as a commissioner on Quebec’s Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse.

His contribution to society has earned him an award of excellence from the Haitian community (1988), particularly for broadcasting legal issues on radio station CIBL, as well as Honorary Citizenship from the City of Montreal (1998).

Harry Pierre-Étienne looks back over his 30-year career with satisfaction. He nevertheless has two wishes for the future: that the different bars adapt to the needs and reality of the visually impaired by capitalizing on new technologies, in particular, and that the DPCP’s door always remain open to anyone with a disability.

Hopefully, the digital shift that the Ministère de la Justice intends to take will allow decision-makers to recognize that openness to accessibility is essential.