by Mike O’Brien
I’ve spent the last month-and-some at my favourite pastoral retreat, a family cottage in eastern Ontario. Sitting among the trees and moss and overlooking a lake, it has many of the elements that might make for the ideal antidote to urban nuisances. Except that, with the increasing suburbanisation and peri-urbanisation of previously quaint quarters, the nuisances come to you. Usually on an overpowered boat or, God help me, rented jet-skis. Still, a province half-full of ill-raised barbarians isn’t enough to completely sap the salving powers of starry nights, intriguing critters and lush forests. While this physical environment does wonders for my mind and mood, better yet are the effects of the psychic environment that I create for myself when I am there. The change of location is an occasion to commit to a change of routine, chiefly a disconnection from the constant flow of digital information that usually attends my day. I read books at the cottage not because I don’t have books at home, but because I don’t read them there; instead I read the latest articles, listen to the latest podcasts, and watch the latest videos from dozens of sources.
I could just as easily continue to follow these patterns of consumption in cottage country. Despite what I like to tell people, I do in fact have internet access there (“I won’t use the internet” is close enough to “I can’t use the internet” to serve as not-too-dishonest explanation for why people should not expect me to know about or do about things during this period). Some years ago, line-of-sight wireless transmitter/receivers were installed around the lake, providing internet access to any household that wished to invest the money and bother required to install their own mast. Our household has not bothered to do so, but we are not embargoed from the world of instant information. Instead, the internet arrives through cellphones and janky assemblages of mobile hot-spots and USB cables.
I rely on the janky assemblage as I am the only member of my family without a data plan for my phone. There are two chief reasons for this. First, I do not want to give one red cent more to the bloated, rapacious beasts that dominate Canada’s telecom market (so woefully uncompetitive and overpriced that it is often cheaper for even long-term visitors from other continents to pay roaming charges for months rather than buying a Canadian plan). Second, I do not want the internet in my pocket. I want it in my house, but I want to be able to walk away from it without being completely unreachable. (To be honest, being un-call-able and un-text-able can be very tempting too, but I have grown old and soft and more pliable to the demands of social expectations).
The desire not to constantly impose on modern phone users for internet access is enough to keep my connections brief and rare during cottage time. It is a point of friction and resistance that is enough to foil reflexive connection-seeking, and keeps me offline and with my nose in a printed book (or just above the waves of the lake). If it were easy to spend all day online, I would, even though it is not what I reflectively desire. And so I create little mental fences and speed bumps that keep the make-believe game of voluntary disconnection working. Sometimes you just have to tie yourself to a mast, because the Sirens aren’t getting any quieter.
Despite my efforts to eschew connection, however, occasionally the world tries to connect to me. In a rather dramatic flourish of irony, my pretend exile from the digital world was disturbed by that near-relic of our age, the posted letter. Not from a dear friend, or executor of a fabulously wealthy relative’s estate, but from the sheriff of Montreal. I didn’t even know we had a sheriff. Disappointingly, this sheriff did not want me to help round up a gang of cattle rustlers or run a corrupt banker out of town. Instead, they want me to attend a jury selection session at the city courthouse, on a day that I had set aside especially for doing nothing of importance while sitting by a lake. Worse still, they want me to be there at 8:30 in the morning. I have a primal aversion to doing anything at 8:30 in the morning (it’s a wonder that I completed a single year of schooling, let alone twenty). Being compelled by the coercive power of the State to do something at 8:30 in the morning feels like some kind of Kafkaesque grotesquerie.
My first thought upon being notified of this letter was “could this document perhaps fall behind a dresser and be safely forgotten about?”. Further review of the contents revealed that, no, blissful ignorance of the demands relayed by this letter would not prevent the intended recipient from being fined or incarcerated into appreciating the seriousness of the matter. My next thought was “could this commitment be weaseled out of, without having to displace oneself to do the weaseling in person?”. This path is slightly more open. It simply requires having a legitimate reason to be excused from the jury selection process, of which several are enumerated. Parliamentarians, senators, judges, coroners, police officers, firefighters, the mentally deranged or incompetent, convicts and notaries are barred from serving as jurors (they are probably too busy anyway, except some senators perhaps). Those who are eligible for jury duty, but who also may be exempted, include various political, legal and military functionaries, old people (65 is old; if you disagree, take it up with the sheriff of Montreal), the infirm, and persons whose domestic obligations are incompatible with such service. Also specified are those persons who may be exempted for some other reason if the public interest allows it. The more vague of these conditions are the most promising at first glance, until they get into more bureaucratic language like “proof” or “supporting documentation”. I am currently nursing several underdeveloped hot pepper plants, and while their flourishing is dear to my heart, I am not sure that a court would understand how this constitutes a domestic obligation. I also have some garden variety mental infirmities, severe enough to drive me to graduate studies in philosophy, but not so severe as to prevent me from completing such studies. I also have an unshakeable faith that I am always just about to embark on something of immense importance, and surely the public interest would be best served by not impeding me from doing that. While these are all amusing exercises, I don’t want to get too indulgent with my reasoning; I might just be a simple creature not far removed from vine-swinging apes, but I know enough not to lie to the Ministry of Justice in a registered letter.
I don’t think I need to lie to get out of jury duty, though. There are legitimate reasons that may be grounds for exclusion, but not by my unilateral say-so. The last few years have been quite a strain on my mental health. I was already burnt out for over two years before Covid arrived, and now I’m in my fifth year of the psychological equivalent of waiting for a tow truck in January (historically normal January, not our balmy, “the planet is on fire” Januaries of late). I’m a marginally functional person now, in my fairly boring life, but I seriously question whether I could handle an emotionally burdensome case unscathed. That’s a pretty plausible reason, but a debatable one, and the place for debate is the courtroom, not the highly circumscribed return form included with a jury summons.
Another interesting possibility is that I am disqualified for reasons that are not even apparent to me (there is a self-deprecating joke about romantic misfortune here, the full development of which is left as an exercise for the reader). I don’t know what kind of reasons are in play in a preliminary stage such as this, and whether counsel will be requesting dismissal for reasons relating to the specifics of a case. Maybe I’m too male or white or urbane for whatever demographic balance is sought in jury composition. Or maybe I think too much about law and ethics to be an impartial, instructable juror.
That last point is potentially quite serious. During my brainstorming about viable weaseling* strategies, I wondered whether it would be possible to write something in this very column that would cause me to be excluded from consideration. Would that be some kind of indictable sabotage of judicial procedure? The letter didn’t say “you are hereby bound not to do things that will force the court to exclude you from consideration”. I suppose that law might be somewhere. If I deliberately did something to be disqualified from mandatory military service, I would expect there to be some kind of penalty, to discourage others from similar malingering. Without knowing what kind of case I would be hearing, though, it’s hard to know what statements would be likely reasons for exclusion, and by whose decision. I could write a whole column about how murder is actually not such a big deal, or how parking violations should be a hanging offence, depending on whether I want the prosecution or defence to request my exclusion. Or I could claim to carry a venomous, unshakeable prejudice against persons with some trait shared by the defendant (if the defendant is some minor scofflaw who happens to own a jet-ski rental business, I will voice my intent to pursue the death penalty, dragging out the case long enough to allow for a parliamentary reintroduction of such punishment if necessary).
It’s quite possible that I’ve already written something that would cause me to be excluded from consideration. I am not shy about my opinions, and many of these opinions bear on matters of law and justice (and the fumbling, crooked, parochial chauvinism of our culturally and scientifically illiterate provincial government). I don’t think anything I’ve written should disqualify me by necessity, but some of it could certainly prompt the exercise of some discretion. (“And what would prompt you to exercise some discretion?”, you might ask me, sardonically. I’m in no mood for your witty barbs, dear reader. I’m grappling with the enormity of the State.) Surely one side benefit of carrying on in a disreputable manner should be exclusion from service in reputable institutions. I don’t act like this just for kicks.
There is one final alternative that I have not yet discussed. That would be the option of gladly serving as a juror without objection or complaint, and dutifully performing whatever is asked of me by the court. Despite my utter contempt for the elected government of this province, and many of the appointed offices under its administration, I do rather respect the capital “S” State of this province. More so than many provinces and small “s” states in North America, Quebec is self-consciously a ship of state, carrying its people into the future, with physical, legal and human infrastructure organised to execute the tasks necessary to that project. Quebec also has some residual principles and values from its social-democratic awakening (the “Quiet Revolution”) that makes it substantively more progressive and just than many other jurisdictions, putting economic and political capital into broad social supports and public infrastructure. I say “residual” because Quebec is drifting away from those days of political conscience and collectivist organisation, becoming just another centre-right, market-centered, culturally American society (overdubbed en français for the local audience).
The current Minister of Justice is the especially execrable Simon Jolin-Barrette, a culture-war attack dog who would make Chauvin himself blanch with embarrassment, and whose hobbies include marginalising religious communities and violating the constitutional rights of linguistic minorities. His laws on public secularism and francisation are so blatantly unconstitutional that the government pre-emptively invoked the notwithstanding clauses of both Canada’s and Quebec’s charter of rights, shielding the legislation from constitutional challenges. Lovely man. And yet, their remains a dignity and majesty to the system of law that endures under whatever clown show or goon squad has been temporarily installed at the helm. Furthermore, the courts are often the main antagonists against the worst instincts of the government, as was the case recently when a judge ruled that certain provisions of an education law violated the rights of linguistic minorities (whether these sections are replaced with something worse is another question). It could even be argued that I may have incurred a special personal obligation to abide by this dignified and vital institution, having regularly exhorted people during the darkest days of Covid to heed its authority against the braying of lawless rabble and proto-Fascist agitators. If I followed that ethic of service, though, I’d sign up for nursing school, or volunteer in hospices, or do a million other things to advance the grand mission of society. I am not so moved in spirit, but I am settled in mind that the court has all the authority and legitimacy to make its current demands on me. You won’t hear me citing naval law or YouTube “freedom experts” in a tortured claim of personal sovereignty. I have a lot to say about sovereignty and the legitimacy of political subjection (I read about the damned stuff for years), but I fear none of that gets me any closer to sleeping in on jury selection day. Maybe I can apply for night court instead. It looked like fun on TV.
*With this repeated use of “weasel” language to denote evasive trickery in response to orders from the court, an image from my cottage vacation comes ominously to mind: the remains of a mink or some other small mustelid, reduced to pellets of fur and bone by an owl, the symbolic animal of the Roman goddess of justice. Minerva, I beseech thee, take pity on this poor soul and do not make him wake up at 6 AM and sit in traffic for two hours a day, nor let him suffer budget-conscious institutional lighting, nor the polite small talk of eleven random citizens. Also, do not punish his irreverence by sending your spirit animal to swoop noiselessly upon him, devour him, and regurgitate pellets of his compacted hair, teeth and bones onto someone’s lakefront property.