Equality and Justice
For People With Disabilities

Ernie Tannis’s Story of Neil Coulman & Introduction to Hoarding

Published on May 3, 2022

Ernie Tannis’s Story of Neil Coulman & Introduction to Hoarding

Ernest Tannis, Reach Co-Founder


I enjoy going to various sports bars to see big screen games and engage with people I don't know, where the event being watched becomes a source of conversation among strangers. You never know who you're going to meet and where that can lead to. A kind of mystery.

There was a location at Carling Avenue, just west of Clyde Ave. in Ottawa which changed hands many times over the years. At one point, long ago, it was one of the franchises of my brother's chain of Fat Albert's Restaurants and Ralph's Sports Bars. I had already frequented that place and came to know the staff - another benefit as conversations with them embrace amazing unexpected subjects and allows me to know what else they do in life. This sometimes opens the door to new friendships and professional relationships, especially for me, in the fields of mediation, negotiation and dispute resolution options.

One night when I went in, as I sat on a stool, the waiter said '’Hello, Ernie the Attorney” (now the former attorney), a name I had actually trademarked in Canada and had come to be known by. At that point in time, there was a somewhat dishevelled sad-looking gentleman whom I hadn't met there before, about two empty seats away from me, who looked at me and asked in a serious, almost intense pleading tone: "Are you a lawyer? Can you help me?”. What happened in the next few seconds after meeting this man, Neil Coulman, altered the course of my life and career.

To understand the dilemma I felt, and the context of the situation I was in, I had promised those close to me who were supportive of my social justice efforts that I would not take on any more pro bono files for at least one year. My first private thought was to apologize and say something like “I'm sorry but at this point in time, I'm unable to take on another file”. However, that felt cold-hearted as this man obviously was seeking help and it was against my nature to say no. I could see the man waiting for an answer, probably wondering why it's taking so long; he looked homeless, penniless. I searched my soul, looked up and said to him eye to eye, “of course, sir, what can I do to help you?”. He seemed so relieved, it almost brought tears to my eyes. I had no idea what he needed me to do but that didn't matter, all that mattered then and there was to say 'yes' which I did and I also felt relieved. I reflected on the non-profit organization, REACH, which I co-founded in 1981, and inwardly knew that I needed to defer to the spirit and intention of that not-for-profit service for persons with disabilities. I felt at ease as he began to tell me his story. Even then, I had no clue about the depth and complexity of his circumstances which over time unfolded and expanded, even beyond his death on June 26, 2019, just a month after his 60th birthday. 

After I spoke with him at the restaurant, l got to learn about his situation. He was never married, had no children, had no siblings, and both parents had passed away. He had a single house in the west end, lived by himself among, what I came to know, caring neighbors. It appeared over time that there was a house in Peterborough where he was raised. That sale had numerous problems as everything in his life had. I made arrangements to meet Neil soon after so he could see my office and meet my Executive Assistant, Jeanette Ryken. He never accepted my giving him a ride. He walked or took taxis. I asked him if he had any other relatives and he said no. I warned him that with no relatives, without a Will, under the Ontario Succession Law Reform Act, his assets would escheat (go to the Crown under a long sophisticated Statutory process). Not yet knowing the extent of his assets, I explained this to him and suggested that he do a simple holograph (handwritten, no witnesses required) Will and bequest his assets to charities. 

Neil and I spent many hours at innumerable restaurants across the city, during which time I came to know Neil very well, and came to understand his profound mental health challenges, although he was competent to give instructions to a lawyer.  I tried many times to have him do a holographic Will; he asked me to be his Trustee but I said the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) advises that you should not be a lawyer for an Estate and also be the Trustee, as it presents a conflict of interest. Although it could have been written up in 15 minutes, it didn't happen. I guess we figured that an Estate lawyer would eventually do his Will and Powers of Attorney for Health and Property. 

From so many visits to his house so many times a week to make sure he was okay, I discovered that he was a serious hoarder in an unimaginable and unlivable house, far too awful to describe.  It would take a whole book to write about how my life and career became devoted to Neil's well-being. 

On June 27, 2019, I got a startling phone call from one of the 18 first cousins of Neil, unknown to me, that Neil had died. I was devastated, wondering what I had missed. I've learned to forgive myself as I don't believe I missed anything, but I don't know for sure.  I linger with this regret. 

I could not go into Neil’s house until after his death. I entered wearing HASMAT protective clothing. Befriending and working with Neil opened my mind to the seriousness of hoarding and the true hardship that can be faced by those who live with it.

I'm so proud of Reach to be hosting a hoarding conference in Neil’s memory and legacy. I wish to honor him and ensure that we help those who have faced similar hardships in life. I've struggled for years to feel and deal with his tragic death. There is so much to share about Neil Leon Coulman. I love and miss him dearly. 


You can learn more about Hoarding by registering for Reach's upcoming conference. Click here to register.


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