On the Passing of George Robitaille

You probably haven’t heard of the name, but if you were in Toronto earlier this year, you’d have known his face.

Mr. Robitaille was a Toronto Transit Commission ticket collector who, on January 9, was caught on a cellphone camera asleep on the job. The picture went viral at that point, and became a lightning rod for latent discontent throughout the city over the TTC’s perceived poor customer service, and the poor relations the TTC’s union (Amalgamated Transit Workers Local 113) has with the public, what with said poor customer service and extremely poorly handled strikes.

Mr. Robitaille did what he could to get out from under the embarrassing situation he’d been placed under. He apologized to the public and especially to his co-workers for making them look bad. There was some mention made that he was suffering from a medical condition that may have explained why he fell asleep on the job. Soon after the incident, he took a medical leave from his job.

Now comes word that, possibly because of that medical condition, Mr. George Robitaille has passed away.

I didn’t comment on the George Robitaille scandal. t am prompted to post this now because of very eloquent words written by Warren Kinsella, which encapsulates my thoughts precisely:

Today, we learn that the man in photo is dead. He was sick, and apparently sick at the time of the photo, too. He left the job he loved, ashamed of what had happened, ashamed that he had hurt the reputation of his colleagues. He had worked for nearly three decades with an unblemished record.

Why am I drawing attention to this? Because it isn’t the exception; it’s the rule, now. Because it should make some people - a lot of people, actually - feel ashamed for how this story ended. Because, when our collective memory is determined by a Google search, and nothing is worth saying if it isn’t expressed in 140 characters, and the “news cycle” is shorter than a sound bite, and analysis is thinner than piss on a rock, this how things are going to be, from now on: someone’s life, captured in a completely unrepresentative moment, is completely destroyed. And no one gives a shit.


He’s right. By all accounts, Mr. Robitaille had an otherwise spotless record during his thirty years at the TTC. He is even credited for saving a customer’s life while working at Wheel Trans. By all accounts, he loved his job, and did the best he could, and was brought down by a single indiscretion that happened to be caught on camera and displayed for the public to see.

As I said over on Warren’s site, the fact is that we judged this man, on the basis of a single mistake made by him (and a litany of errors made by people in the same profession but — and this is important — not specifically him). We overlooked his nearly thirty years of service and felt that we could condemn him based on that single mistake. I don’t think that speaks well of any of us.

It also highlights the fact that we are entering (if not entered already) an interconnected world where personal privacy is about to become a quaint and outdated concept. Now every youthful indiscretion that happens to be logged on Facebook is just a Google search away from screwing up people’s job applications, credit applications and even applications for insurance.

Internet justice is swift and brutal and doesn’t often brook applications to appeal. It may be immensely satisfying when it’s delivered on someone who richly deserves it (see the whole Cooks Source Magazine debacle), but what is happening more and more in this world is a demand that we all be perfect. A single mistake captured and logged on the Internet can be sufficient to judge a man regardless of his long period of diligent service behind him.

Recently the Star posted on the release of statistics about how public servants were using the Internet; the news there is just what you’d expect — many hours wasted in fruitless browsing, with some individuals trying to access porn, gambling or racist websites from government computers. It doesn’t reflect well on these individuals and nor should it, but at the same time I would caution against applying this against the public service as a whole. And do those who browse a little on company time really need to be condemned?

Can you honestly say that you have never done something silly, or something that you regretted later? Can you honestly say that you’ve never browsed the Internet when you should be working, if only to clear your head while preparing to face up to a tough task? Can you honestly say that you haven’t done something that isn’t representative of your life as a whole? Well, how would you feel if that embarrassing moment was suddenly given much wider play?

There is no easy solution here. I don’t see how we can rescue the concept of privacy in this interconnected world unless we all started living like hermits. But while we might not be able to control the loss of our privacy, what we can control is how we treat other people now that their indiscretions are out in the open. Maybe we shouldn’t be so willing to rush to judgement when mistakes come to light. Maybe we need to give more people a second chance.

This world functions better when we live more by the golden rule, treating others as we would have ourselves be treated. If we had made mistakes in the past, we would hope that we would be forgiven them, and judged not just on the mistake, but on the totality of our record. We would hope that we would be given the chance to make up for past mistakes.

It seems reasonable to me. And it’s entirely possible that you or I may be asking for that second chance in the future.

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