Joe Arvay died unexpectedly from a heart attack on December 6, 2020 at the age of 71. Joe was an amazing lawyer who fought hard for social and environmental justice. He worked for (and often won) legal recognition of the rights of Indigenous communities, people who use drugs, sex workers, people in prison, people with disabilities, queer and trans people, and people with low incomes. He was also a strong advocate for publicly funded health care, the right to collective bargaining, and marginalized communities having access to legal funds to defend their rights.
Just a couple weeks ago Joe was in court supporting 15 youth in their lawsuit against the ‘canadian’ government on for its failure to take meaningful action around climate change. When he died he was in the middle of a years-long case taking the governments of ‘ontario’ and ‘canada’ to task for breaking their obligations to Anishinaabe people (representing 22 First Nations that are signatory to the Robinson Huron Treaty).
Joe’s life is not only about legal accomplishments — he was a full human being. He is survived by his partner Connie Addario, the five children of their blended family (Louigi, Hannah, Carmen and Gina Addario-Berry, and Emily Arvay), six grandchildren (Solomon, Francesca, June, Caspar, Zoe and Oliver), and his sisters, Mary Jane Cruise and Jeanne Pender. He was also a leader in getting access to adapted recreation, one of the first sit-skiiers at ‘whistler, and an avid cyclist.
Joe started off in government in 1981 to try to make change from within the system but felt that change would be more possible in court than elsewhere, and in 1990 went into private practice to accomplish that. No lawyer does things on their own — in any high-profile legal case there are many unrecognized grassroots people, admin staff, paralegals, lawyers, and others who make the case possible. But Joe’s contributions to many groundbreaking cases over decades of dedicated, passionate work are truly remarkable both in what he did and how he did it.
Joe’s amazing legal victories came in part through building trust with grassroots people in community, and the sincerity of his effort. In 2014 Joe explained that an accident in 1969 that left him paralyzed and using a wheelchair gave him new perspective on injustice. “I went from being a member of the majority and all of a sudden became a member of a minority…I became acutely aware of discrimination and prejudice against minority groups, including me.” Joe often worked without charge to represent people and groups that couldn’t pay — over 30 years that meant many thousands of hours of free legal work. Joe is an example of someone who could have gone a conventional route to gain power and prestige but instead decided to leverage both his privilege and his own experience of marginalization to fight hard alongside people who are even more screwed over by systems.
A FEw of the cases joe worked on
In 2018 (upheld on appeal in 2019) the ‘bc’ Supreme Court struck down federal laws on solitary confinement. Joe was one of the lawyers representing the BC Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society, who argued that “administrative segregation” (ad-seg) violates prisoners’ rights. On appeal the court held that ss. 31–33 and 37 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act are unacceptable because they authorize indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement, authorize internal rather than external review of ad-seg decisions, discriminate against Indigenous people in prison and prisoners with mental health struggles, fail to meaningfully consider the health care needs of prisoners with mental illness / disability before putting them in ad-seg; and fail to make sure that people put in ad-seg are given a reasonable opportunity to access legal representation. The federal government is attempting to overturn this judgment by taking it to the Supreme Court of ‘canada’; the BC Civil Liberties Association and John Howard Society are also appealing on the grounds that the Court of Appeal didn’t go far enough to protect the rights of prisoners, and seeking a hard limit on the maximum number of days a person can be held in solitary.
When the federally ruling Conservatives tried to shut down InSite (the first supervised injection site in ‘canada’), Joe worked with grassroots activists and health care workers & researchers to battle against the government. This resulted in a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that using federal drug laws to shut down access to health care would violate the rights of people who use drugs. Joe also represented Providence Health Care in challenging the federal law that prohibits doctors from prescribing heroin, winning an injunction that restored access to medical-grade heroin for five people who had left the SALOME study.
Joe represented Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) in their fight to have a say on challenging federal laws against prostitution that harmed sex workers. The government argued that SWUAV and individual former sex workers shouldn’t be able to bring a constitutional challenge because they hadn’t been charged under the laws, a usual expectation for a constitutional challenge. But Joe took the position that sex work is work, arguing that allowing SWUAV to bring the case is like a union pursuing collective bargaining and that the existing laws violated the rights to safety, association, and freedom of expression. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that SWUAV and a former sex worker should be granted public interest standing to challenge the law and to speak for decriminalization. This led to the 2013 Bedford case, where the court unanimously struck down the existing prostitution laws.
He also won multiple cases prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and extending queer rights, including not letting school boards ban queer-positive material from schools, stopping Customs harassment of a queer bookstore, and establishing that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was prohibited under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (which gave queer partners, who couldn’t legally marry, same rights to spousal benefits as married couples and paving the way for legalization of same-sex marriage).
Joe was one of the lawyers who represented transsexual woman Kim Nixon in her attempt to hold Rape Relief accountable for their trans-antagonist perspective that trans women are not “real” women so not eligible to volunteer regardless of skill, training, and experience. He also was on the legal team representing Jenna Talackova, an Indigenous trans woman who fought and won the right to be allowed to compete in the Miss Universe contest (owned by Donald Trump) and striking trans-antagonist provisions that refered to “natural-born women”.
As a staunch advocate for consent-based decision-making and people’s autonomy over their bodies and lives, Joe was involved in a number of cases protecting people’s ability to make their own choices — about genetic testing, access to information about a sperm donor parent, and medical care. In Carter v. Canada, he represented Gloria Taylor, one of two women in a joint case fighting for the right to a medically assisted death. Assisted suicide had been criminalized in ‘canada’ since 1892, and in 1993 the Supreme Court of ‘canada’ narrowly ruled against Sue Rodriguez’ constitutional challenge seeking the right to physician-assisted suicide. In a unanimous decision in 2015, the Court ruled that “a competent adult person who clearly consents to the termination of life and has a grievous and irremediable medical condition, including an illness, disease or disability, that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition” had the right to a doctor’s help to die. This was subsequently amended by a 2019 ruling that ordered new legislation by December 2020; a new federal law for medical assistance in dying is currently being considered.
In 2020 the ‘bc’ Supreme Court ruled against a surgeon trying to create a two-tier health care system where people with money could pay privately for surgeries available in the public health care system, enabling rich people to jump the queue ahead of people without money to pay privately. Joe represented a coalition of public health advocates fighting for better access to public health care rather than rich people solving wait-time problems by creating their own health care system.
a good hearted person
People who are famous get held up in ways that can lead to arrogance. But many people who interacted with Joe in high-profile cases describe him as a genuinely good-hearted and humble person. In a Twitter thread honoring Joe’s passing, longtime activist Jaggi Singh wrote:
“I had the privilege & honor to know and interact with Joe many times during the RCMP APEC inquiry in the late 90s, where I was a naive self-represented complainant. I admired Joe’s legal intellect, and was stunned by his work ethic and attention to details. Importantly, I greatly respected his fundamental decency, and how he consistently punched up in his choices of issues to take and people to represent. I appreciated the way that Joe, already well-known at the time, treated us self-represented folks at the APEC inquiry as allies, not a problem to be managed. He saw our mischevious role as complimentary to the broader legal battle. He was gracious in helping us out.”
Joe was also remarkable in his willingness to go beyond his own comfort zone to be able to push society towards genuine respect and inclusion. After fighting a very mainstream case for recognition of gay marriage that tried to normie-ize gay relationships by steering the court away from thinking gay rights = anal sex, Joe was approached by the owners of a queer bookstore to consider a case defending explicit queer porn. According to this excerpt from an article in The Walrus:
“James Deva took Canada Customs to court for seizing material bound for Little Sister’s, a gay bookstore in Vancouver. The stakes were markedly raised; this time, gay sex was very much at issue. Canada Customs declared obscene any depictions of anal sex, sado-masochism, or erotic bondage. The case, as argued by Arvay, became unlike any obscenity trial in the country’s history. Earlier lawyers had fought such cases this way: ‘I find your expression disgusting, but I will hold my nose and defend your right to express yourself.’ When Arvay met with his client at the offices of the BC Civil Liberties Association, Deva asked, ‘How do you feel about fist-fucking, Joe?’ ‘Well, I don’t know a whole lot about it,’ replied Arvay. ‘But I’m certainly willing to investigate.’ Deva decided he had a winner, and Arvay left the meeting with an armful of banned books. He met with the authors of what Canada Customs had deemed as ‘filth,’ including such highly literate thinkers as sexual rights activist [Patrick] Califia and novelist Jane Rule, to build a case that these books and images constituted integral parts of a culture. During the trial, he slept just a few hours a night and, in Deva’s words, turned the courtroom into ‘a beautiful theatre.’ A landmark victory followed: the Supreme Court ordered Canada Customs to stop harassing gay bookstores.”
Joe worked very closely with the BC Civil Liberties Association and Pivot Legal Society over many years and his family has asked that people wanting to make donations in Joe’s honor contribute to one of these organizations. This can be done online from the family’s memorial page or via the direct links here. May Joe’s memory be a blessing to everyone who knew him, and for everyone whose lives he made better, which is all of us. ❤