How one crusading coroner took on stonewalling bureaucrats and tried to make Toronto's waters safer.
On the morning of August 2, 1962, Alexander Peters, 16, and Derwyn Smith, 14, paddled a canoe into the Toronto harbour from the Toronto Sailing and Canoe Club. Peters was an experienced canoeist and was to compete the next day in the Canadian Canoe Association championships in Ottawa. Although described in the newspapers as excellent swimmers, both boys put on old life jackets, which the club was using as pads underneath boats on the shore. They didn’t, however, tell anyone at the club that they were going out.
That afternoon, the crew of a passing tugboat heard cries for help and fished Smith from the cool water. He was only semi-conscious, and it was some time before he was able to mention to his rescuers that he had been out with a friend. When the boat returned to look for Peters, he was found dead, floating face-down in the water, still wearing his life jacket.
It was clear from the beginning of the investigation that the jacket worn by Peters was inadequate, described by a member of the harbour police as “old and patched up and [missing] two strings at the front to tie it together.” Even if it had been in pristine condition, this model of jacket was no longer approved by the Department of Transport. The harbour police told the newspapers that newer jackets were available which, beyond being buoyant, would roll a person onto their back to keep their face out of the water. Coroner Morton Shulman ordered an inquest.
Concerns over the safety and regulation of life jackets were not new in 1962. Throughout the 1950s, the summer pages of Toronto newspapers were dotted with accounts of people drowning, many of them wearing life jackets. In 1960, Toronto Star boating columnist Stan Davies noted that “for 10 months of the year, most Ontario waters are unbearably cold and consciousness is soon lost if one must wait any length of time to be rescued.” Davies advised boaters to test “every life jacket which the law requires him to carry… If the jacket does not keep the nose and mouth out of the water in all circumstances, throw it away.”
Davies also noted that the old standard life jacket, which other sources indicate lost its approved status in 1958, had been “criticized and maligned for years, yet thousands are still in use.”
At the inquest into Alexander Peters’ death it became clear that his jacket, through considerable aging, had become completely unsafe. In tests, it became water-logged in mere minutes, such that only an inch of the jacket remained above the surface of the water. But Dr. Shulman’s inquest did not end there. Shulman called on Jolyon Byerley, the chief sailing instructor for children at the Island Yacht Club, who testified about tests performed on the four types of jacket which were currently approved by the Department of Transport. Of these four types, Byerley claimed that three failed to keep a person’s face out of the water. The only one that passed actually bore a warning that it was not approved for boats under 40 feet in length.
Shulman requested an expert opinion from the Department of Transport. According to the Globe, “when Roderick Cormack, an assistant Crown Attorney, asked the Coroner whom he should subpoena in the Department of Transport, Dr. Shulman replied: ‘Subpeona everybody in sight.’”
The inquest adjourned for a week, and Shulman ordered more tests which were filmed and shown to the five-person coroner’s jury. In these tests, volunteers wore the different models of jacket and lay face down in water, in an effort to simulate unconsciousness. Again, of the models tested only a newer, improved version of the style worn by Peters appeared to bring up the head of a person lying face down—the one that had been removed from the list of government-approved life jackets for small crafts in 1958. According to Captain Keith Angus from the Department of Transport, this was done upon recommendations from boat operators, who had found the model too bulky for comfortable boating. Angus also testified that the jackets which had failed in the films had all previously passed government tests, and suggested that the volunteers “were unconsciously trying to keep their faces in the water.”
While the findings of the inquest laid some of the blame on the Toronto Sailing and Canoe Club for failing to provide adequate safety instruction and supervision, much fault was found with the jackets, and with the Department of Transport for approving jackets which failed to meet buoyancy expectations. Shulman called it a “terrible situation because thousands and thousands of these jackets are sold and non-swimmers depend on them to save their lives.” Shulman was quoted in the Globe, saying that “the Department of Transport should reconsider its decision to let these old type of jackets wear out their lives.”
In 1962, Morton Shulman’s name was still largely unknown to the Toronto public, but this would soon change. Although only in his mid-30s, Shulman had been with the coroner’s office for 10 years, while also maintaining a private practice on Roncesvalles Avenue. The previous year had seen the resignation of Smirle Lawson, Metropolitan Toronto’s long-time chief coroner, perhaps better known to history for his heroics in the first-ever Grey Cup game. Since this time Shulman’s name had been mentioned as a likely successor to Lawson.
Through what Shulman later attributed to political manoeuvring, the appointment finally came in March of 1963. Shulman’s appointment was announced in all three major Toronto dailies, and he took the opportunity to promise significant improvements in the Coroner’s Office. While acknowledging the need to “keep his demands within reason,” Shulman told the Globe that he believed in using publicity to help get messages of action and safety to the public, saying “through the years I found that public pressure was the only way to get any good result out of an inquest. The best way to exert this pressure is through the press.” He made specific reference to the Peters drowning from the previous summer, indicating that the public attention had inspired a new Department of Transport regulation requiring one life jacket or floatation device per boat passenger, which he said would make boating safer.
One month into his new position, life jackets would again put Shulman in the headlines.
In April of 1963, a father of three named Louis Pisecny drowned near Marie Curtis Park while trying out the new motorboat he had recently bought. No one on board had significant boating experience, and the only floatation device on board was a child’s life preserver. Once again, Shulman called an inquest, and once again he subpoenaed a representative from the Department of Transport to speak on the subject of life jackets. Of particular concern to Shulman was a newspaper article he had found, claiming that the federal goverment planned to relax the requirement of life jackets on small vessels. In one of his autobiographies, Shulman later wrote “it appeared obvious to me that Pisecny’s death could be used to save other lives by pointing out to the public the need to have life jackets in small boats. It may have appeared obvious but various civil servants did not agree with me.”
During the inquest the Department’s representative, Thomas Appleton, refused to offer an opinion on life jacket regulations, claiming that as a civil servant, he was unable to offer an opinion on legislation. When the inquest reconvened two weeks later, Captain Angus was the Department’s new witness, accompanied by Assistant Crown Attorney Patrick LeSage. When Shulman began questioning the superintendent, LeSage objected, claiming that Angus was similarly unable to express an opinion as to what the law should be. LeSage also protested that Shulman’s inquest should confine itself to the scope of Pisecny’s death, and not open itself to all matters of life jacket regulation. It soon became apparent that Shulman was being confronted by two objections: whether certain government employees could speak towards legislation, and whether a coroner’s inquest should confine itself to individual deaths or expand its scope to a broader context.
Although coroner’s inquests were generally used to determine the circumstances of a suspicious or otherwise unusual death, the Attorney General’s office published a booklet called “Advice to Coroners,” which instructed coroners to use inquests to arrive at a “verdict that will provide a guide to prevent the repetition of the same type of death in the future.” Shulman saw this as an opportunity. In response to LeSage’s comment, the Globe wrote “Dr. Shulman said an inquest under the coroner’s system would be useless if the inquest only found the reason for death. ‘The prime purpose is not how, but to prevent similar deaths in the future,’ he said.” In one of Shulman’s subsequent biographies, co-author Susan Kastner wrote that “to [Shulman], this is where the coroner’s office shines; where the inquest does its true work. This [was] the time to make a point about the necessity for life jackets and recognized outboard motor savvy.”
Although Shulman could not get employees from the federal government to speak towards the regulations, the jury returned a verdict that included recommendations that life jackets be required on all small boats, and that operators of powerboats should be given more rigorous written and practical tests.
Despite this favourable outcome, Shulman was not yet done with the issue. He firmly believed that there were people in higher offices, including the supervising coroner for Ontario, who had interfered with his inquest and tried to suppress evidence by pressuring him to withdraw the subpoena for the Department of Transport officials during the Pisecny inquest. He forwarded some of the correspondence between himself and some of the persons involved to Premier John Robarts, and called for an inquiry into interference in the Ontario coroner system.
There the matter lay for the next few years. As Shulman’s career as metro coroner continued, clashes between Shulman and his superiors grew frequent. Finally, after defying instructions one too many times, he was fired in 1967. Shulman immediately countered by renewing claims of interference from the provincial government during his time as coroner.
This time Shulman received the judicial inquiry he sought, although the commission ultimately ruled against him. In specific regards to the Pisecny inquest, Justice William D. Parker wrote that “because of his ignorance of the law, Dr. Shulman tried to do something that he had no right to do. His legal advisers were not telling him he could not put in certain evidence; they were telling him that he could not put in the evidence in the way he wanted to.” As such, no suppression of evidence was found in this case, nor indeed in any of the other instances which Shulman cited.
If the notion of a socially conscious coroner trying to bend the rules sounds like something from television, well, it became just that. Shulman’s crusading career provided the inspiration for Wojeck, a CBC drama show which ran from 1966 to 1968, about a determined Toronto coroner who frequently clashes with the establishment over social issues and legislation. Considered controversial for its willingness to examine sensitive subjects then rarely seen on television, it proved to be one of the first Canadian, English-language television dramas to achieve a level of success with Canadian audiences.
The debate over life jacket regulation was but one of many episodes in Shulman’s life. Shortly after his tumultuous career as Metro coroner came to an end, Shulman was elected MPP for High Park, where his career was no less colourful. He wrote a best-selling book on investing, hosted a frequently controversial talk show on Citytv, and became a columnist for the Toronto Sun.
The issue of life jacket safety remained (and remains) an important one, with the debate today hinging on whether it is enough that the jackets be on board small crafts, or if the law should mandate that they be worn. Synthetic materials have continued to improve the quality of life jackets, as has public awareness. In the 1960s, however, drowning sadly remained a regular part of Toronto summers; one initial report of Pisecny’s death referred to it as “Toronto’s first drowning of the year,” suggesting that more were inevitable.
Additional material from: The Globe (August 3, August 22, August 29, 1962; March 9, May 30, December 16, 1963; January 28, January 29, January 30, 1964; June 15, 1972); Report of the Royal Commission to Investigate Allegations Relating to Coroners’ Inquests, 1968 [pdf]; Morton Shulman & Susan Kastner, Can’t Somebody Shut Him Up? (Warwick, 1993: Toronto); Morton Shulman, Coroner (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975: Toronto); The Toronto Star (November 9, 1952; July 2, 1956; July 9, 1960; July 22, September 15, 1961; August 3, August 22, August 29, 1962; March 8, April 8, April 13, May 10, 1963; December 10, 1964; April 7, May 4, 1967; July 24, 1968); The Toronto Telegram (August 3, August 7, August 29, 1962; March 9, April 8, May 10, May 30, 1963; January 28, January 29, 1964; April 7, April 11, May 2, 1967).
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