PM’s attack on chief justice unprecedented

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

By Sean Casey (guest opinion)

The Prime Minister of Canada has many duties. Yes, some of those duties involve his political party, but there is a far more important and overarching duty to his country, and with that, a profound obligation to defend and strengthen Canada’s public institutions.

Last week, Stephen Harper personally attacked the integrity of the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. As Chief Justice, McLachlin is also a member of the Queen’s Privy Council and the Deputy Governor General of Canada. Hence, she is much more than a sitting judge which is how the Prime Minister and his obedient Attorney General and Minister of Justice Peter MacKay described her last week.

Alberta born, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed McLachlin to the Supreme Court 25 years ago. She was elevated to the position of Chief Justice by then Prime Minister Jean Chretien, making her the first woman to hold that position. She is also now the longest serving Chief Justice in our history. Her life has been one of duty and public service to her country. She is an honourable, just, and wise woman entrusted with serious constitutional responsibilities as head of the judicial branch of the Canadian government.

The Prime Minister’s attack on the head of the judiciary is unprecedented. At issue is the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the Chief Justice attempted an inappropriate tête-à-tête with him over the eligibility criteria for appointments to the Supreme Court. In fact, McLachlin attempted to bring a potential legal issue the very issue that materialized to the Prime Minister’s attention, as ignoring it could seriously compromise the Supreme Court’s ability to properly function. In normal times, the Chief Justice, along with officials in the Department of Justice, and the Prime Minister, would be involved in a discussion to determine qualified candidates for the Supreme Court, and the eligibility of candidates is intrinsically linked to their qualifications.

That the Prime Minister would purposely make it appear as though the Chief Justice had acted inappropriately, while knowing his statement was completely unjustified, appears not to matter. That his statement is unjustified, and we know it to be, does matter to most Canadians. So what is really going on here? What could possibly drive Stephen Harper to intentionally try to undermine the Supreme Court and its Chief Justice?

In recent months, multiple actions taken by Mr. Harper and his government have been struck down or ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Some examples include elements of his crime agenda, his attempt to circumvent the Constitution on the matter of Senate reform, as well as his attempt to appoint an ineligible candidate to the Supreme Court. Many respected individuals in the legal community thought that this candidate would not meet the statutory requirements. Six of seven members of the Court three of them Harper appointees agreed.

It is possible that the Prime Minister is angry with the Supreme Court for reminding him that he is, like all Canadians, bound by the rule of law and the Canadian Constitution.

It is said that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Stephen Harper’s attempt to discredit the Chief Justice is not an isolated incident. Actually, it is the most recent example of a predictable pattern of behaviour.

A few years ago, Stephen Harper told Canadians that by the time he was done in office, we wouldn’t recognize Canada. Since 2006, Harper has publicly and repeatedly attacked public officials and independent Officers of Parliament.

The list of those attacked is long, and includes the former heads of Statistics Canada, the Nuclear Safety Commission, Elections Canada, as well as the former Parliamentary Budget Officer, the former Veteran’s Ombudsman, and the former Auditor General Sheila Fraser over her comments on election law. The most recent addition to this list is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. To most Canadians, this conduct is disgraceful.

We can only speculate about the real motivation behind Mr. Harper’s attempt to discredit Chief Justice McLachlin. Perhaps this is all part of a bigger and more manipulative strategy to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter should the Court once again strike down one of his measures. Or, perhaps this is a sullen response from a Prime Minister who wants to show the courts and the country, that he is the boss.

I believe we are better than a Prime Minister attacking fellow Canadians. Common decency and respect for our public institutions, including the courts, are still valued in this country. Like you, I look forward to the day when hope and hard work replace division and negativity.

- Sean Casey is the Member of Parliament for Charlottetown and the Liberal Justice Critic

Organizations: Supreme Court of Canada, Prime Minister of Canada, Privy Council Department of Justice Statistics Canada Nuclear Safety Commission Elections Canada Charter

Geographic location: Canada, Alberta, Charlottetown

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