One of Manitoba's most recognizable judges is stepping down from the bench to tackle what may be his biggest challenge yet -- bringing judicial reform to a developing Third World country.
Ray Wyant informed his colleagues this week he was leaving his post in the provincial court, effective May 16, to accept a prestigious consulting project in Ethiopia on behalf of the United Nations.
Wyant will spend the next several months working on an extensive initiative for all courts in Ethiopia, which includes developing a judicial code of conduct, a comprehensive training curriculum for judges and reviewing rules and standards of judicial ethics.
"I think it's going to be a huge opportunity to make a difference," Wyant told the Free Press. "It's a fairly unique thing. I think as much consulting as I'll be doing, I'll also be learning."
Wyant is no stranger to taking on what may be perceived as big projects and has one of the more unique resumés. He has served in all facets of the justice system after receiving his law degree from the University of Manitoba in 1978, including:
-- Spending his first seven years working as a defence lawyer in private practice.
-- Spending the next 13 years working a provincial Crown attorney, including a stint as deputy director of prosecutions.
-- Spending the past 16 years working as a judge, including a stint as the chief judge of the provincial court.
Wyant even tried his hand at newspaper reporting in the mid-1970s, working as an intern at the Free Press, which included a memorable project -- going undercover as an inmate at Headingley Correctional Centre and spending a night behind bars. He still has the framed article, along with his mug-shot photo that was included, in his office.
Wyant has earned a reputation of being a fair, caring judge who always goes the extra step in engaging criminals in his courtroom. Rather than just give a lecture and hand down a sentence, Wyant has always strived to learn what makes criminals tick while attempting to find solutions to avoid repeat appearances.
He summarized his views in a poignant farewell sent to his colleagues on the bench this week.
"It has been an honour and a pleasure to work in our court. I will miss the daily challenge of dealing with the people and situations that come before us that touch every part of a person's emotions," Wyant wrote.
"We see the very raw underbelly of society. We deal with the mad, the bad and the sad charged with criminal offences and we often see the very tragic consequences of their crimes on others. It is a scarring process for those victims and accused who come before us -- and for us."
Wyant has been one of the more progressive judges in Manitoba. He's long advocated for cameras in the courtroom and has publicly applauded a recent decision by all three levels of court in the province to launch a pilot project that has seen some select cases broadcast live.
Wyant has also spent several years doing a monthly appearance on a nationally syndicated radio show out of Winnipeg in which he takes live calls about the criminal justice system. That type of water-cooler discussion has often carried over to the hockey rinks and grocery-store aisles where members of the public will often stop to give their two cents with the always-engaging Wyant.
Wyant will fly to Ethiopia toward the end of this month to begin the process of working with all levels of judges in that country. The contract runs through October and could be extended to include other nations, he said.
"It's an opportunity I felt I would be foolish to pass up at this stage of my career and after nearly 37 years of life in the criminal justice system," said Wyant.
He won't be entirely gone from the local judicial landscape. Wyant will have to return to finish a few reserved cases he's already presided over, and plans to apply for the senior judges' program in Manitoba. He would then join a handful of other "retired" judges who are called to help out and fill in when needed.