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Tony Merchant sits at his desk in the Regina based branch of the Merchant Law Group LLP. From his desk he manages his national legal empire. Photo by Josh Diaz.

Taking people to court is in grained in the Merchant family DNA.

Tony Merchant is no exception.

But Regina’s most sucsessful attorney never had plans to become a lawyer.

The king of the Canadian class action lawsuit and founder of the Merchant Law Group LLP, Tony Merchant has lead some of the largest legal cases in Canadian history. Suing more companies that he can remember, his career is highlighted by a class action lawsuit against the Canadian government, resulting in a $1.9 billion payout to the survivors of residential schools.

A fifth generation lawyer, Merchant explained that from a young age that it was always assumed he would follow in his family's footsteps.

Born Evatt Francis Anthony Merchant, and given the nickname “Tony” like his father, Merchant grew up in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. A far distance from the legal centres of the country Merchant would frequent later in life.

Raised by his mother, politician Sally Merchant, Merchant remembers sitting down to eat with his uncle, Adrian Smith, and grandfather, Vincent Smith, both of whom were lawyers. Since they were always bringing their work home, Merchant did what he could to figure out what his uncle and grandfather were discussing.

“I would ask so many questions that my grandfather had to limit me to two questions per visit,” remembers Merchant. “As a kid that drove me crazy.”

Merchant remembers asking questions about everything from court protocol, to liens and legal treatment. While not traditionally interesting information for a child, Merchant always valued his family’s knowledge.

“Not just getting the answers from my grandfather, but to get his explanations as to why he saw things the way he did,” he explained. “Looking back on it now, those answers were probably some of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned.”  

After his high school graduation, Merchant knew he should pursue a law degree, but made plans to pursue business as a future career. Merchant spent a brief stint at the University of Regina obtaining a degree in Business Administration.

However, it was at the University of Saskatchewan that Merchant discovered his true calling.

“I joined the debate team. It was just something that interested me.” said Merchant.

Merchant went 101-2 in his university debate career.

“The whole idea of this... high level cerebral debate... and really getting into people’s heads... was just appealing to me. Although to this day I still wish I could’ve gotten those two wins!” chuckled Merchant.

In the process of fighting for himself, Merchant was beginning to consider a career fighting for others.

“I assumed that being a lawyer was similar to debating… I had this thought in my head that I would just win all the time,” he admits.

Shortly after Merchant graduated from the University of Saskatchewan, he found a way to dip his toes into the career of an attorney.

In 1974, the Saskatchewan Legal Aid program was created, giving low income individuals subsidised legal aid in criminal court. The program didn’t pay enough to attract full time lawyers, but for Merchant, this was his chance to put his debating skills to the test.

“I won my first 29 cases,” bragged Merchant. “I was unstoppable.”

But that feeling was short lived.

“I lost my next 29 cases,” deflated Merchant. “It was a real eye opener.”

But through the legal process, something was awakened inside Merchant. A passion for a career as a lawyer, like his father, and his father before him.

“It’s that battle. That fight for your side. As a lawyer your job is to aggressively fight for your clients, and if you don’t do that then what good are you?” suggested Merchant.

Merchant brought his passion home, where a similar scene played out almost 30 years later.

“As a kid I remember my dad always bringing work home,” said Merchant’s oldest son, Evatt Merchant. “He didn’t isolate it from us, he explained it to us, and answered our questions.”

“That’s most likely why I’m a lawyer too,” chuckled Evatt.

All three of Merchant’s sons are lawyers, and are employed by the Merchant Law Group in Saskatchewan and Alberta.   

Merchant is currently preparing for his next case, a class-action lawsuit against West Wind Aviation, the transportation company involved in the Fond-du-Lac plane crash back in December.

“As I continue my career everything else melts away and I become more focused on my work,” explained Merchant.

“This is what I was meant to do.“