Down and Out in Toronto: the Importance of Recalibration

This guest post comes from Grant Barclay, who is in the second year of a PhD in the field of criminal law at the University of Glasgow. His research examines the criminal law defences of necessity and coercion from a broader philosophical understanding of the guiding forces and their impact on persons forced to commit crimes. He occasionally sings in a metal band too.

“This is possibly the coldest winter we’ve experienced in recent memory” is a phrase I heard on numerous occasions throughout my month long stay in Toronto, from various walks of life, and yet the terms I would use to describe my experience are, somewhat ironically, of warmth and generosity (in fact the most repeated phrase was definitely “why did you come in March?”, but that’s far less poetic). Indeed, from the professors at the universities all the way down to the colourful individuals I encountered on street corners, I was shown kindness (and even a sort of reverence when I opened my mouth and my Scottish accent came tumbling out), proving that the heritage of Canadian hospitality appears to be alive and well.

My lodgings consisted of a studio apartment ‘just off Lansdowne and Bloor’ as the locals would say, a quaint little space owned (and decorated) by a local artist and dubbed the ‘Urban Hermitage’ on Airbnb. Situated above an Italian restaurant in one of the older neighbourhoods with laundromats on every corner, this was quintessentially ‘The Six’ (a term used by Torontonians to refer to the city) and exactly what I had been looking for in my endeavour to have a true Canadian living experience. Truth be told, this research visit was, to me, as much about the ‘soul search’ as it was about visiting academic institutions and discussing my work with new people. I have always viewed the umbrella term ‘personal effectiveness’ to be, if I may stretch the analogy, like a parasol when compared to some of the other ‘handbag brolly’ terms that make up the Researcher Development Framework (sorry that was really bad). Indeed, life as a PhD researcher can get a little bit monotonous if you are not careful, and I had been finding myself slipping into a rut when it came to the more theoretical aspects of my work. Criminal legal theory was not something that I’d explored in any great depth during my undergraduate or masters thesis, and working through complex material featuring previously unheard jargon was proving to be no mean feat. Good personal effectiveness then, as I see it, involves identifying and finding solutions to these kinds of problems.

VDR - The Urban Herimtage 2

VDR - The Urban Hermatige 1

The Urban Hermitage

VDR - Night light reflections from my window

Night light reflections from my window

Toronto offered an ideal solution to this problem and indeed much more. Being home to both the University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall Law School (as part of York University), it offered two highly respected institutions with a strong reputation for criminal legal theory, embodied by various outstanding academics who had written extensively on the topic. Two such outstanding academics, one from each institution, had agreed to host me, and so there I found myself sitting down to lunch with them just one day after landing, feeling incredibly jet-lagged but answering rapid-fire questions about how the appellate system worked in Scotland, and why I thought a temporal connection test in the context of danger in coercion cases was ill-informed. Lunch was great, my answers not so much. I spent the rest of the day being shown around the University of Toronto St George Square campus, rolling my eyes as we passed their very own Trinity College, and feeling rather overwhelmed when we finally reached the library I would come to frequent often during my trip and I was able to stop and gather my thoughts. I made sure that the next day was spent wandering the city and not thinking about law at all.

VDR - My room tag outside my office at Osgoode Hall

My room tag outside my office at Osgoode Hall

Indeed, coming back to my earlier point about ‘soul searching’, the purpose was to invigorate, inspire and motivate myself in as many ways as possible. I think it is important to remind ourselves that inspiration can come from anywhere and anything. In my opinion the only true enemy (in research, and life generally) is monotony, and thus I would go on to spend the next month doing everything I could to keep things varied, in an attempt to teach myself not just more about my research, but indeed how to study. Thus, some days I spent at the St George Campus in downtown Toronto; others were spent up north in the idyllic nestling of University of York campus buildings where I had been generously gifted my own office for the duration of my stay. Likewise, some days I attempted to replicate my usual routine back home in the evenings, like going to the gym or playing basketball, and other days I did something wild and more ‘holiday-esque’, like seeing an NBA game or visiting Niagara Falls (it’s really not what you expect, and was referred to by many as “the shame of Canada”, but that’s an entire blog post in itself).

VDR - Subway commutes were never dull and full of interesting characters

Subway commutes were never dull and full of interesting characters

From a purely academic point of view, having the opportunity to fully immerse myself in a completely different legal system, along with its own culture and values, was invaluable to my research and will no doubt enrich my eventual thesis. Being presented with something which is similar and yet somehow different brings issues into sharper focus – you become presently aware of taking the things that ‘we do back home’ for granted and develop an appreciation for how other jurisdictions can deviate so drastically, or indeed follow a similar approach but for very different reasons. Comparative study in law is always valuable, but this value is accentuated when travelling from a very small jurisdiction (Scotland, representing approximately 5.5 million people). Naturally, as a much larger jurisdiction (37 million in Canada), Canadian law offers a much larger bank of case law, which is crucial for a topic which, because of the uncertainties surrounding it, comes up rarely. It is one thing to have access to this wealth of knowledge, it is quite another entirely to have access to those who know how to wield it. It was extremely refreshing to discuss topics with someone and have them say ‘oh have you read [insert obscure Canadian case] on it?’ – a fruitful avenue that I may never have known existed without extensive reading of only tangentially related source materials (ultimately too time-consuming an exercise).

VDR - Dinner with friends on my last night in Toronto

Dinner with friends on my last night in Toronto

So I returned to Scotland armed and refreshed – a new perspective on both my research and my life generally. Sometimes, despite all the deadlines piling up around you and the exponential growth rate of your reading list, the right move is to just get away from it all and start again. In my case that involved immersing myself in a new jurisdiction while eating copious amounts of poutine.

[I want to say a massive thank you to the SGSAH team for the generous grant – their continued support and belief in the value of my work is greatly appreciated.]

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at or connect with the blog on Twitter

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