February 02, 2024

Know Your Rights with Dave Shellnutt

Over the past five years, Dave Shellnutt has become the new legal voice for Toronto’s cycling community. During this time, he has held numerous “Know Your Rights” workshops across Ontario, started the Bike Brigade early during the COVID-19 pandemic, and expanded his advocacy to cover anti-racism matters. I spoke with Dave on January 23, 2024 to learn more about his bike-focused legal career.

RZ: Tell me about how your legal practice – The Biking Lawyer – got started.
DS: I was inspired in many ways by advocates like you, Rob, and those before us who campaigned for bike lanes on Bloor Street since the early 2000’s. That kind of advocacy and dedication to the cycling community around Toronto really had me looking at how can I, as a fellow cyclist, can contribute. Being a lawyer, I sort of fell into personal injury law and didn't really love it all that much. But then, I was biking downtown before the Adelaide bike lanes to my law firm every day which was battle in those days and still is in many ways. Seeing what we were up against and getting a few cycling cases, I found that I sort of dove down the rabbit hole to find out what my own rights were in these interactions that I was having so frequently and then had a few cases of cyclists hit where there were sharrows and what that meant and all that kind of stuff. And so, through my own experiences, career, and the work I was doing, I was able to meld my passion and my work by becoming a lawyer that focused on cycling advocacy and helping injured cyclists.

RZ: Speaking about the “Know Your Rights” workshops, were there certain rights which you found that were not that well understood by the cycling community?
DS: “Know Your Rights” workshops are a big part of our practice of law. It's a way for us to give back to the community and give people the tools they need to not so much avoid collisions but know what to do if the unfortunate occurs. We've done these things from Owen Sound to Ottawa for at least five years now and constantly, there are a few things that come up that people don't know about. The first and foremost is that many of us don't drive, so we don't have car insurance and don't know that if you're involved in a collision with an automobile – be it as a pedestrian, cyclist, passenger, or another driver – you get access to automatic no fault benefits right away. If you're someone like me that got clipped and broke your elbow and your wrist, you get access to $65,000 in medical care costs right out of the gate without having to fight for it or anything like that. Even if you have auto insurance, you're probably not reading the fine print and realizing that you've got access to these benefits, but it's the number one thing we always want people to be aware of.

RZ: What inspired you to start the Bike Brigade in 2020?
DS: We have a real sense of community here in Toronto. I find the majority of people that bike in the city have a great affinity for it too. We sit in on meetings about bollards and paint colour and all manner of things that would just that show a certain dedication to our community and the safety of people in it. When the pandemic hit and during those first few days of the initial lockdown in March 2020, we realized that bikes were a great way for people to get around safely without spreading COVID-19 to get people who are isolated and in need of support. Therefore, we reached out to our cycling community. You, many other people, and quickly hundreds of volunteers stepped forward to get supplies, prescriptions, and DIY masks to folks in need in those early days. And of course, we still deliver food to folks in need across Toronto every single day of the week for multiple partners.

RZ: I know one of the Bike Brigade’s partners – FoodShare – stopped the collaboration a few months back. Tell me about the impact the Bike Brigade has had up to now.
DS: FoodShare was a program that had limited funding and almost ended a few times, but finally they ran out of funding for the free food box program. They are just one of dozens of partners that we have.

The stats for this year are not unique but is year over year. In 2023, we rode 18,000 kilometers and delivered 17,600 units which could be food, prescriptions, or even dog food. We had 237 active volunteer cyclists, 307 people in need received items from us, and 32 partners that we worked with last year. We delivered 9,500 meals and 7,000 shipments of groceries, as well as filled 1,000 community fridges.

RZ: Another aspect with the Bike Brigade and The Biking Lawyer practice is there has been a fair bit of a focus on anti-racism. Why did you pursue this path?
DS: I find that what works well in my life and my work is to pursue passions. I love cycling and I hate racism, and I’m doing those things in my private life by biking, attending protests, and volunteering. I was also able to tie that to my professional life by not just representing cyclists, but also people who've experienced racism at the hands of state authorities and the two are not mutually exclusive. We as a cycling community have for a long time presented as pretty Lily white male and that has been to the exclusion of many people. And it's just a micro cause and an example of what broader racism and depression in our society is. It manifests itself whether you're the police or a bike shop. Racism is racism is racism, and it bleeds into everything.

Dave leading the Critical Mass for Black Lives Matter ride in July 2020 (via Jun Nogami)

The same things we fight against broadly in the community are necessary to fight with (or against) in our cycling community as well. We need to hear the voices of those people who've been underrepresented and sidelined because their experiences are important and will help us as a as a broader cycling community. With the battle for safe streets, we have to find intersections and we have to have all hands on deck, so that's a big part of our practice of law and what we do in the cycling community as well.

RZ: I know you did that Critical Mass for Black Lives Matter in July 2020, while you also focused a lot on policing matters. Maybe you could talk about the relationship between the police and the cycling community, as well as other marginalized communities?
DS: Sure. I grew up in Guelph, Ontario which at the time was a training ground for officers in the region. There were a lot of officers down in the area and not a lot of racialized folks, and many of my friends were young Black men. I saw first hand – at least from the outside – and them being targeted repeatedly where I was not, so that kind of stuck with me and I always wanted to contribute to push back against that. So, I got a law degree and never forgot the reason why I went for it. Those same things that happened to my friends in Guelph continue to happen today to very terrifying effect. Shootings, taserings, knees on necks, and the reports from the Human Rights Commission. The police's own data shows that these folks have a real problem when it comes to using force against Black and Indigenous populations, and so it's incumbent upon me – as a lawyer and someone who can help people at least get financial compensation to help them deal with these incidents – to do so.

We see the similar patterns of surveillance targeting uneven enforcement against cyclists in Toronto as well. It's weird because you look at the High Park thing and a lot of the people being targeted are wealthy, White men – at least in theory – but many of the people who were ticketed were not and that probably makes a lot of sense given the police’s practices. But I think that the police view us as a “them”. We are not seen as contributing members to our society. Cyclists are often viewed as scofflaw anarchists, which is certainly not the case. You look at moms taking kids to school by cargo bike all over the city, but we all sort of get painted by this anti-cyclist bias and then that permeates the police force and other levels of government and society as well. So, we see these biases play out against cyclists in the form of targeting and things like that. It's certainly the experience of non-racialized cyclists shouldn't be equated to what young Black men deal with in Toronto neighborhoods, but we do see some similarities.

RZ: The rally you organized in August 2022 in response to the police presence in High Park was well attended. What was it like organizing this rally and others including the recent one on Bloor?
DS: Going along Dupont underneath the Railpath, there used to be this mural of cyclists which said, “strength in numbers” and that always stuck out to me. In Summer 2022, I believe there was a very targeted harassment campaign of cyclists in High Park. There had been the year before too, but it sort of hit a fever pitch and you had off duty cops chasing after women on bikes and knocking them off. You had officers ticketing people for not stopping at stop signs and then rolling stop signs and hitting cyclists themselves. We've never really got a clear answer from TPS about what was going on, but there seemed to be this service-wide like mandate to descend on cyclists in High Park and everybody was very upset about it. People reached out to us left, right, and centre and a collective decision was made amongst many that we needed to ride and show that that we are big in number, are committed to each others’ safety, and will not allow this kind of anti-cyclist behavior to stand. So, I think we organized what many people would say is one of the biggest cycling protest rides in a decade in Toronto and I think we made our point.

Dave speaking at the Bloor bike lane rally in November 2023

RZ: Your firm has been active elsewhere in Ontario including with the recent spike in crashes involving pedestrians in Kitchener-Waterloo. How did you contribute to their road safety efforts?
DS: Our goal is to be the leading law firm for cyclists in Ontario and we have clients in Thunder Bay, Ottawa, Sarnia, you name it. So, we're constantly looking out and seeing who's in need for a bit of our support. Last year, it was London. We helped out some folks draw some attention to some hit and runs and the poor police response. This year, we noticed a pattern happening again of vulnerable road users in the Kitchener-Waterloo area being hit and we had written to the authorities about this the year before saying there's a bunch of vulnerable road users being hit and they should probably do something – which no one listened. It happened again this year, so we worked with local advocates to really shine some light on that and hopefully get some commitments. It's important to us to do that.

We feel like we are experts in the area, and we have a pretty loud and large voice. So, if we can lend that to our community partners to affect some positive change for cyclists and pedestrians, then that's great. I'm also born and raised in Guelph, so I know Kitchener-Waterloo quite well and I know what it was like to bike in that area back in the day. Even still, I go bike there a fair bit now and although some things have changed, it's still a bit spicy.

RZ: Have you, Janice with Cycle WR, or other advocates in Kitchener-Waterloo heard back from their elected representatives on how they plan to address these crashes in the future?
DS: We have heard crickets from the authorities – just like we did after our letter last year – which is a bit upsetting; although one Councillor for Waterloo Region – Colleen James – did meet with us, NDP MPP Joel Harden, and some other local Waterloo advocates to talk about this. She was fantastic in organizing that and contributing, but that's the only person that that seems to be interested in coming to a solution on what we've pointed out for two years now.

RZ: Given you have been supporting some of the road racing clubs lately, what has been the connection between your firm and the road racing scene?
DS: I grew up doing a significant amount of mountain biking and road bike riding and so it's sort of close to home. We realized this was a segment of our cycling community that spends a lot of time on the roads, is exposed to a lot of driver aggression and road violence, and needs support just as much as commuters like you and me. So, we really have made an effort to reach out and speak to those communities not just to offer our services, but also to in turn, get them engaged in the discussion about road safety which has been great. It's easy to do when you have people like Michael Longfield of Midweek Cycling and other groups who really care about road safety. They're easy partners to have.

RZ: What final message would you give to the cycling community with regards to legal rights, anti-racism, or cycling in general?
DS: Our “Know Your Rights” programs are just such a critical piece of the work we do. If I could send a message to cyclists, it is to check out our blog and our social media to see that we're posting about important things to the cycling community all the time and educate yourself because knowledge is power. If the unfortunate were to befall you or you witness someone being hit, then being equipped with some of the knowledge that we have on our handy crash card is really critical. I can't tell you enough about how many times cyclist witnesses have provided critical information that have helped our clients who have been injured and maybe didn't get a license plate at the scene or was a hit and run and didn't see a camera. There are so many things to equip yourself with the tools you need to be safe out there.

In terms of anti-racism, I think it's really important that as cycling community members, we always look to other groups who are seeking justice to find intersections with including anti-poverty and anti-racism groups to see where we can find common ground because if we can support them on their issues, then they can support us on ours. Environmental concerns, road safety concerns, city spending, and equity issues are all interconnected. So, when we find these connections, commonalities, and comrades, then we will be well situated to ensure safe streets and communities.

1 comment:

  1. A pleasure to speak with you always Rob - Dave