Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ministers Against Portfolio, Part 3: Minister of Injustice

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

From the beginning, the Harper government’s attitude towards our judiciary has been baldly partisan. In the 2006 election Stephen Harper informed Quebecers not to fear any excesses from a Conservative majority. “Liberal courts” would hold him in check, limiting his ability to impose a right-wing agenda. To so brand Canada’s strictly independent courts was an early red flag in the politicization of our judicial system. Harper’s first (In)justice Minister, Vic Toews, was a long-time critic of judges(1) and immediately began politicizing their appointment.

Two of the three mandates of the Department of Justice are “working to ensure that Canada is a just and law-abiding society with an accessible, efficient and fair system of justice” and “promoting respect for rights and freedoms, the law and the Constitution”. Clear direction for how the Minister (and government) should behave, yet we see the opposite.

Presented with a court decision contradicting their ideological sensibility, the Tories refuse to accede. They fight and delay, wasting public funds and tying up our courts. In the end, appeals exhausted, they essentially ignore the verdict and carry on unconcerned. For Toews this was old hat; as Manitoba’s (In)justice Minister in 1997 he’d refused to implement Canada’s gun registry. Is this an example to set for our citizens, especially our children? If you don’t like the rule, fight it doggedly; if you lose, break the rule anyhow. I would not call this respect for the law or constitution.

Canadians facing execution abroad traditionally had our government’s help getting their sentences commuted to life in prison. Not anymore. Shunning a series of federal court orders, our government routinely turns its back on Canadians on death row. We don’t execute our own citizens, but we don’t object when others do.

With Omar Khadr, captured in battle at age 15, the path should be clear. For child soldiers, the Convention on the Rights of the Child mandates “all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration.” Yet we’ve left him to rot as President Obama tries to close Guantanamo down; even abetted his illegal interrogation. Despite repeated federal court rulings, our government continues to ignore our treaty obligations.

Likewise with Vancouver’s Insite safe injection centre. Unhappy with a negative decision, the Tories appealed. The appeal court handed down an even stronger ruling against them, so now Minister Rob Nicholson is spending more of our tax dollars taking it to the Supreme Court.

Decades of acting “tough on crime” in the United States had little benefit, and measures like mandatory minimum sentencing are being relaxed in favour of greater judge discretion. Here in Canada, despite a decreasing crime rate, we go the other way, reducing the power of judges to sentence based on the specifics of a crime. Apparently what Canada needs is more one-size-fits-all incarceration at an annual taxpayer expense of $90 million.

A colleague observed: “responsible government knows its limits. We don’t want politicians running our businesses – that’s why we have a free market. We don’t want them performing open-heart surgery – that’s why we have surgeons. Likewise, we don’t want politicians deciding matters in our criminal courts – that’s why we have judges.”

Our elected Parliament has the power to write laws. It falls to our courts to interpret and enforce them. What part of this do our Ministers of (In)justice not understand? Rule of law should mean you follow the laws, not ignore them until you can re-write them in your favour.

Next week: Minister Against Fisheries.

(1) Carol Harrington, "Manitoba minister riles justice conference", Globe and Mail, 30 January 1999, A16 & Paul McKie, "Top judge takes shot at justice boss", 10 June 1999, City Page.

UPDATE For some reason this particular column has attracted a lot of attention. People have reposted it to three other sites so far:

Free Dominion

Parry Sound-Muskoka Liberal EDA blog

Canadian Election 2009

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

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