Brian Iler: an unrepentant ’68er

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Brian Iler, the Chair of CommunityAIR, was honoured by his colleagues in the legal profession last week.  This is the text of the comments made about his career and Brian’s reply. Editor’s note.

Brian Iler receives the John Hodgson Award

Brian Iler receives the John Hodgson Award

Brian Iler was presented with the 2016 AMS/John Hodgson Award of Excellence in Charity and Not‑For‑Profit Law on June 2 by the Ontario Bar Association Charity and Not-For‑Profit Law Section in a luncheon ceremony. Celia Chandler introduced him with a brief recounting of his career and his personality. She called out “his energy, his idealism, his ability to cut to the chase.”

Brian followed that up with more detail, recounting key moments in his career. He remains, in his words, “an unrepentant 68er ‑ hopeful, not without reason, that with collective and sustained community initiatives, the world can be made a better place.”

Read on for the full text of their comments. There’s some great history in there! Here’s to more great work to come!

Celia’s introduction:

Last Thursday was a day of unsettled weather – the forecast was for heavy rain and thunderstorms, a high of 23 degrees. I was chatting with Brian who excitedly announced – “tonight is the first race of the season.” Among his many other activities, you see, Brian is a sailor. I said “Brian, isn’t it going to storm?” To which he said “But that’s what I like – part of sailing is about adjusting and coping… and prevailing.”

This approach is not limited to sailing ‑ Brian has been adjusting, coping and prevailing on behalf of his clients since his call in 1974. Let me capture some highlights.

He began law school at Osgoode Hall in 1969, a fresh‑faced, long‑haired rebel in a sea of corporate types. He graduated and landed on a path far from Bay Street, initially on his own doing whatever came through the door: criminal defence, civil litigation, union-side labour law, real estate, and corporate and commercial law. In the early 80s, he teamed up with Charlie Campbell in a lasting partnership where Brian became the solicitor, Charlie, the barrister and together they carved a special niche – a values‑driven for‑profit firm focused on providing non‑profits, charities and co‑ops with quality, practical legal advice and important leadership and advocacy for the sector. Although largely retired, Charlie remains a good friend to Brian and to the firm and we’re very pleased that he’s here today as our guest.

Throughout, Brian has been a leader in non‑profit housing. He developed a passion early on for co‑op housing development and enjoyed the heady development days of the 80s and early 90s. There were setbacks along the way – in 1995, the Harris government put the brakes on all provincial non‑profit housing development. Brian “adjusted, coped… and prevailed.” Today co‑op housing remains a significant part of the firm’s business as Canada is poised to once again put money into social housing. Tom Clement, the ED of CHFT, is here with us today to mark this occasion and we thank him for his support.

Brian moved on to help develop a novel non‑profit home ownership model called Options for Homes, whose developments dot the Toronto skyline in once dodgey and now‑fashionable places like the Distillery District and the Junction.

Brian, however, is not one to rest on a single issue, and so in the early 2000s, he became very involved in the renewable energy sector. We are reminded of this work when we see the turbine on the waterfront put up by the TREC Renewable Energy Co‑operative in 2003 – Brian’s been a TREC board member since its beginnings. Community ownership of renewable energy generation in Ontario was hampered by legislation. Brian went into “adjust, cope … and prevail” mode and was instrumental getting reforms necessary to free up the renewable energy sector through the mid‑2000s. Fellow progressive, David Robertson, is an accountant who has worked shoulder‑to‑shoulder with Brian on these (and other) issues for many years and contributed out Brian’s nomination for this award. Thank you, Dave.

More recently, Brian has been active in the area of social enterprise, where raising capital to allow non‑profits to pursue their missions has been an historic challenge. As you have gathered by now, Brian likes a good challenge. On behalf the social enterprise sector, he has “adjusted, coped … and prevailed” by enabling the use of Community Bonds to raise capital, most particularly for the Centre for Social Innovation, where according to the website: “he’s been the creative legal mind behind many of our innovative social enterprises.” CSI’s CEO, Tonya Surman, proudly sits at our table today in support of Brian. Thank you Tonya for joining us.

I met Brian when I worked for one his environmental clients; I immediately admired his enthusiasm, his energy, his idealism, his ability to cut to the chase, and most significantly his passion. Seventeen years have passed – he was my articling principal, my boss and now my law partner ‑ and at 70, he still never passes up a chance to go to a demo for a good cause ‑ or frankly any cause. His opposition to the Island Airport expansion has solidified his role as a public figure. He adjusts, copes … and prevails, and prides himself on becoming a thorn in the side of any opposition. He is, as his boat is named, indefatigable.

Please join me and my colleagues in congratulating Brian on this achievement.

Brian’s speech:

Thanks, Celia and Teresa. And thank you to the Section for deciding to bestow this award on me.The award came as a surprise as, although my partners nominated me, they had kept it a secret. A surprise, too, as my practice hasn’t been and is not a traditional charity law practice, as Celia’s remarks have made clear.

If you will indulge me, let me talk for a bit about myself, and some highlights from the past 42 years of practising law that.

Brian followed that up with more detail, recounting key moments in his career. This is the text of his remarks.

I started out in civil engineering, at the University of Waterloo. Three years later, in 1968, I was handily elected president of its Federation of Students. That year was seminal for me, as it was for many.

I remain an unrepentant 68er ‑ hopeful, not without reason, that with collective and sustained community initiatives, the world can be made a better place.

After 1968, I was reluctant to continue with engineering, and opted instead to apply to Law School.

As a brand-new lawyer in 1974, I jumped into a general practice of my own that relied heavily on legal aid for criminal and civil litigation.

One of my earliest cases was a lawsuit against three Millhaven penitentiary guards for assaulting my client, who was an inmate there. The assault was so bad that his spinal fusion was torn apart.

At trial, I won general damages, punitive damages and solicitor and his own client costs.

My first appearance in the Ontario Court of Appeal was on the guards’ appeal – I kept the damages and the costs, but the punitive damages were struck.

My first eviction case was opposing an effort to evict what was left of a sixties free school – one of its founders had title to the farm the school was located on and had built a house on the property. The other founder vowed the property have been bought for the school.

On behalf of the school, we claimed that there was a trust, and, upon checking with the lawyer who had acted for the purchase, discovered an affidavit by the plaintiff that he was buying in trust for the school.

With pleasure, I pulled the affidavit out in discoveries and delighted in the sudden change in attitude of opposing counsel ‑ who had up until that time been openly contemptuous.

The school agreed to split the property leaving the plaintiff’s house and a swamp with him, and the rest went to the school.

Today that school property is still owned by a now-vibrant non-profit organization offering a wide range of hands-on learning programs on food and farming.

And the magazine started by that school, now known as This Magazine, is one of the very few magazine‑operating charities, and continues today as vibrant and gritty as it ever was.

I’m proud to have obtained charitable registration for it back in the 80s – it was much easier back then, of course – and to continue to be listed on its masthead, along with Clay Ruby, under “emergencies”.

My first real estate deal was a purchase for a brand-new non-profit housing co-operative that had 100% financing from the just-announced CMHC social housing program.

For that 32-unit apartment building I billed a fee of $1000 – tiny, today, and tiny then, for the work but significant for me at that time as a brand-new lawyer.

Everybody involved – the co‑op’s board, me, and the CMHC social housing staff ‑ were still in their twenties.

By dint of a very steep learning curve, us twenty‑somethings pulled off the beginning of a co‑op housing movement that I’ve had the fortune to work closely with ever since.

Tom Clement, ED of CHFT, who was there back in the 70s, is here today.

By the late 1970s, I’d been retained by what is now the Ontario Co‑operative Association, and over the next 22 years, assisted it with developing and lobbying for most of the 24 amendments made to the Co‑operative Corporations Act over those years.

Another of the people I met in those early days was Charlie Campbell, who had similar roots to mine in the student politics in the sixties, and had also become a lawyer.. By 1982 we had agreed to form Iler Campbell, with Charlie to focus on litigation, and me taking what seemed quite the risk at the time, to focus only on solicitor’s work.

Charlie’s been the most wonderful partner – we’ve been strongly supportive of each other and the level of trust and affection we have for each other has only grown over the years. Charlie is here today.

His practice has been totally complementary to mine – I could confidently hand him litigation generated by my clients, knowing that his work would be of the highest quality. I am proud, too, that he took on so many difficult and often highly political cases over the years.

By the time of Mike Harris’ election, I had 12 lawyers and support staff working on my side of the firm ‑ ‑mostly on co‑op housing development. Since that work was entirely reliant on government funding, it all disappeared with his election as Premier of Ontario.

I laid off 7 of the 12, and sailed off on my sailboat to lick my wounds.

My partner Celia Chandler, whom you met today, now has responsibility in our firm for our housing co‑op practice, addressing member and governance issues for our many co‑op clients throughout southern Ontario.

Out of adversity comes opportunity: I had worked with Mike Labbe in housing co‑op development, and he came to me just around then suggesting he was thinking of a way to build affordable ownership housing – without government support – using a non‑profit co‑op model, where condo purchasers:

  • would be the members of the co‑op that built the project;
  • buy their homes at the co‑op’s cost; but
  • agree to pay the difference between cost and market when they sold on the market – to an arm’s length non‑profit financing arm that provides support to more projects.

He and I worked to realize that model, and did so successfully that more than 3,000 homes have been built since then in Ontario using the Options for Homes model. That financing arm, Home Ownership Alternatives, now has assets of over $80M, and growing.

Although for many years, I was hands‑on on Options projects, my partner Ted Hyland now has responsibility in our firm for our Options work.

By 1979, Greenpeace Canada started seeking my advice, and I was pleased to provide it – beginning with legal advice at a Darlington demonstration. In 1983, I was asked to join the board of directors – its first non‑staff director ‑ and over the next eight years, helped that organization grow from 16,000 supporters, to more than 400,000.

Greenpeace worked hard on climate change beginning in the 80s. The shame is not enough people listened, for decades.

Surprisingly, it was a registered charity, and, not surprisingly, CRA came calling ‑ we resolved their complaint with a new charity that would be more compliant, keeping the non‑charitable activity in a new non‑profit.

By the mid 90s, both Germany and Denmark had taken some significant practical measures to address climate change ‑ promoting community ownership to quickly grow renewable energy production.

A group of us were totally inspired by their success. Led at the time by a brilliant engineer, Greg Allen, we formed Toronto Renewable Energy Co‑op, incorporating it in June of 1998.

TREC is responsible for, and we’ve provided all the legal services, for:

  • the WindShare Co‑op turbine in Exhibition Park in downtown Toronto;
  • successfully lobbying for the Green Energy Act, which facilitates community ownership of electricity generation; and
  • incubating SolarShare Co‑op, which has raised millions from members for solar projects, applying the unique offering statement regime available to co‑ops in Ontario.

We applied a similar community‑financing model to SolarShare’s to sell what we called Community Bonds for the Centre for Social Innovation, to buy two large buildings in downtown Toronto, comprising together, some 96,000 square feet, serving some 800 organizations, active one way or another in making the world a better place. Tonya Surman, its inspiring co‑founder, and CEO, is here today, as well.

What so many of our clients have in common with each other, and with us, is we were all products of the sixties upheaval, and reflect the best of the egalitarian values of those times. As they grew in size and influence, we found the skills and experience to continue to serve their needs. We’ve grown – from Charlie and I, then Ted and Celia – both of whom worked for non‑profit clients of mine before they went to law school, and adding, more recently, lawyers Shelina Ali, Lauren Blumas, Safia Lakhani, Michael Hackl, and Katie Douglas, our almost‑a‑lawyer – all bright, so capable, and so in synch with the social goals of our clients.

The co‑op model ‑ both non‑profit and for‑profit is often the corporate model our clients have chosen. Why?

The brief answer is this: they can be an amazing vehicle for communities to take control of meeting their needs – whether it is housing, energy, food, agriculture, employment, or anything else that people committed to building a better world choose to do together.

They are the original – and by far the most successful social enterprise model, and have an incredibly rich history of economic success here and elsewhere.

Any enterprise, whether a business, a co‑op, or other forms of social enterprise, needs entrepreneurial skills. I’ve had the pleasure to work closely with a host of brilliant social entrepreneurs – you’ve met some today.

Mike Labbe, accepting his recent award for Social Entrepreneur of the Year, described succinctly, what I mean by a social entrepreneur:

Really, entrepreneurs are people who identify problems in our society and look at the solutions and say “That doesn’t look so hard”.

The social entrepreneur then adds:

Will this solution that I’m going to work on improve people’s quality of life?

And will that solution strengthen or improve the environment of this planet, because, without, nothing else matters?

Tonya Surman has described me as an entrepreneur. I might be, and if I’m in the company of her, Mike Labbe, and the many other great social entrepreneurs I’ve had the pleasure to work with, then that’s a good place to be.

Again, thank you for the honour, and thanks for your time

 

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