OTTAWA – When he was 10, Bill Sundhu’s father suffered a brain injury at his lumber mill job in British Columbia’s interior, which left him severely disabled.
Both of Sundhu’s parents were uneducated immigrants from India, so his mother cleaned floors and washed dishes to support the family.
And every day, when he came home from school in Williams Lake, B.C. some 250 km northwest of Kamloops, Sundhu would feed his four-year-old sister and look after his father, who had the same mental capacity as his sibling.
It was, in Sundhu’s words, “a very straight-laced life.”
“I grew up in a very, sort of, limited circumstances, and I didn’t even touch alcohol until I went to university at 18,” he says.
Once at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Sundhu drank to fit in.
And he was not good at it.
“I didn’t drink very often. I was very disciplined in all the areas of my life – except alcohol.”
It was a pattern that followed Sundhu as he went on to become a successful criminal lawyer, and then a B.C. provincial court judge, appointed in 1996 at age 37.
“When I drank, I couldn’t handle it,” says Sundhu, now 56.
“That included blacking out at times, and that then brought me to the incident of Feb. 16, 2006.”
The “incident” involved Sundhu getting so drunk at a hotel bar in Vancouver that he ended up in police custody, colloquially known as the “drunk tank.”
An investigation found he also made offensive remarks to a female server, hotel guest and police officer.
Sundhu, who previously went by Balwinder, took full responsibility for his actions, informed the public and sought counseling. He says it’s the last night he ever drank.
“I was terribly disappointed in myself,” Sundhu says, sipping Perrier at an Ottawa hotel.
“It was inappropriate behaviour for a judge to get so drunk that I don’t have any recollection of that night, which is really scary.”
It’s not the first time he got in trouble with the law. In 1989 in Williams Lake, Sundhu was also arrested under the influence, and alleged to have slapped an officer. But that charge was dropped, and it turns out Sundhu was illegally arrested.
“Because I was vindicated, I lost an opportunity to deal with the issue of alcohol,” he says.
Sundhu’s past troubles were back in the news recently, because he is now running for the NDP in Kamloops-Cariboo-Thompson, and appeared at an event with leader Tom Mulcair to oppose the government’s anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51.
He calls the release of his past indiscretions “inevitable.”
“I’ve always been honest and open about it,” Sundhu says.
Sundhu credits the 2006 incident with setting him on the political path he is on today.
“It was a very painful experience, the most painful experience I’ve gone through in my life. It was very public. I felt that I had let down my family, myself and the court,” he says.
“It was life-altering for me. I knew I had to really take stock, and I did the deep soul searching.”
A special prosecutor assigned to his case took more than a year to lay a charge of causing a disturbance, which was later stayed.
While he sat in limbo, Sundu realized he no longer wanted to be a judge.
“I had had a good run as a judge. I learned a lot, but I went to the bench very young. And I felt that I was limited by judicial strictures, that I needed to be free again, to find my real purpose,” he says.
He applied for, and was accepted to, the prestigious Oxford University masters’ program in international human rights law. He is now an executive member of the Canadian Bar Association’s criminal justice section, is listed as counsel at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and is helping to train the judiciary in Tunisia, in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring.
And Sundhu returned to doing what he loves: working for himself as a sole practitioner lawyer, representing First Nations, women and marginalized clients from all walks of life.
“I’m not isolated wearing those silk robes, living a lonely, isolated life of a judge,” he says.
“I’m now engaged. My hands are getting dirty, I’ve rolled up my sleeves and I’m in the trenches.”
He says he was approached regularly by the both NDP and the Liberals to run as a candidate, but chose the New Democrats, who he says share his concern for growing inequality, poverty, and electoral reform, such as advocating for proportional representation.
His Kamloops riding was New Democrat for two decades but has been voting Conservative (or its previous iteration, the Canadian Alliance) since 2000. Conservative MP Cathy McLeod currently holds the seat.
“I think I have a very good chance,” Sundhu says. “ When I’m out on the doorstep and in the communities, I hear people want to replace the Harper Conservatives,”
Most of all, Sundhu says his past has taught him to be a voice for others.
“I was fortunate when I got in my difficulty, I could afford to go to a counselor. I had a law degree and legal training, so that when I resigned I could go into a new career,” he says.
“People don’t have those kind of chances out there, and so it enhanced, hopefully, my sense of compassion.”