Justice Minister Peter MacKay may be only four weeks into his new job, but that didn’t stop CBA members from seeking commitments from him on some of the resolutions passed at Council this weekend.
Not surprisingly, the minister refrained from making promises this early in the game, but his answers give some indication of his general direction on a number of issues. Here are some examples:
Accommodating Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) to improve access to justice:
Council passed a resolution Saturday urging the federal government to amend the Criminal Code and other legislation with respect to the definition of FASD, power to order assessments and FASD as a mitigating factor in sentencing, among other things.
Dan MacRury, a Crown prosecutor from Sydney N.S., asked MacKay whether he would commit to legislative changes “so we can treat people with FASD in a more humane manner in this country.”
The minister replied that the issue is a priority for his department and the federal-provincial territorial working group was bringing forward recommendations in the fall. “I will commit that we will act,” he said.
Harm reduction drug policy
This resolution passed Saturday urges the federal government to use evidence-based medical, social and health practices to address the effects of drug use and adopt legislation and policies that provide opportunities for drug users to access health and social supports rather than subjecting them to criminal sanctions. It also urges permitting the establishment of safe supervised injection sites and treatment programs.
Josh Weinstein, the Winnipeg lawyer who moved the resolution, asked the minister whether the government would adopt evidence-based legislation that takes a harm reduction approach which, he said, saves lives and makes good business sense.
The minister would only say that he could not commit to acting in a certain way; that medical evidence continues to evolve and he is concerned that government “gets it right,” for example by monitoring to ensure that safe injection sites are getting the desired result. “Your comments are duly noted,” he said.
Equality in judicial appointments
This resolution dealt with greater transparency with respect to the number of women and diverse candidates who apply to the Judicial Appointment Committee.
Part of it urges the Minister of Justice to direct the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs to publish annual statistics on the number of women and men and candidates identifying as aboriginal, ethnic, visible minority and other equality seeking groups. The minister was asked whether the federal government would follow the CBA’s lead and ask the CFJA to publish those statistics.
MacKay responded that there is already a lot of statistical data and the more pressing issue is to ensure that “we have fully functioning judicial advisory committees with greater gender balance.” His priorities also include more public education to encourage more women and diverse candidates to apply to expand the pool of applicants.
Denunciation of anti-homosexuality laws and enforcement in Cameroon.
Since 2010, at least 28 natives of Cameroon have been arbitrarily arrested for same-sex conduct; prosecutions resulted in eight convictions. The CBA has joined the international community in urging the Cameroon government to repeal laws prohibiting same-sex conduct and order law enforcement officials to cease arrests and prosecutions under those laws.
The minister was asked whether the federal government would join efforts in Cameroon and whether it would make efforts to secure the safety of athletes and visitors at the Sochi Olympics in Russia.
The minister said the safety of athletes is a public safety issue for the military and it’s on the radar. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has already made several strong statements with respect to Russia and Cameroon and Ottawa will continue to “speak truth to the leadership of those countries that continue to slide backwards.”
A resolution designed to address gender balance and diversity on Canadian courts passed Saturday after a brief tussle over the wisdom of asking the minister of justice, in the words of one Council member to “stick his nose in something that he ought not to be doing.”
The joint resolution, moved by the Women Lawyers Forum, Equality Committee and CCCA Diversity Committee, urged the Minister of Justice to “encourage” judicial advisory committees to submit qualified candidates that reflect the diverse nature of Canada. But Montreal lawyer Simon Potter objected to the paragraph, arguing that the JAC committees are independent of the minister, therefore the CBA can hardly urge him or her to tell them what to do.
Saskatoon lawyer Michelle Ouellette agreed, saying the motion was stronger without that clause. The resolution was withdrawn and Council went on to pass a new version that encourages the justice minister:
It’s the problem that never goes away in a high-octane, work-till-you-drop profession: the quest for work-life balance. As work pressures accelerate, law firm culture has been slow to change -- with devastating results for many practitioners. CBA members got a reminder Saturday of the importance of making wellness a priority as Council passed a resolution moved by the Legal Profession Assistance Conference and the CCCA Advocacy Committee that encourages the legal profession to adopt a culture that supports a sensible working environment and promotes good mental health.
As former LPAC chair George Hendy pointed out, the recent LPAC IPSOS Reid survey of lawyers on wellness issues revealed that mental health issues are prevalent in the profession. Nunavut lawyer John Maclean added that the average burnout rate for a lawyer in Canada’s North is two years -- and there are no mental health treatment facilities in Nunavut. Meanwhile, the B.C. branch struck a lawyer wellness task force to raise the visibility of lawyers assistance programs and shift the perceptions of wellness in the profession. A report was delivered this spring and its recommendations will be implemented over the next two years, said B.C. branch vice-president, Dean Crawford.
The CBA is urging the federal government to take an evidence-based approach to address the effects of drug use by permitting, among other things, the establishment of safe, supervised injection sites and treatment programs.
Current government policy simply isn’t working, said Winnipeg lawyer Josh Weinstein, who moved the resolution on behalf of the National Criminal Justice Section. The message behind the resolution passed by Council on Saturday: as an organization free from political influence, the CBA can rely on law, science, logic and medical information to inform its position. And the end result is saving money on prisons and court time and ultimately saving lives.
“It speaks to what we are as an organization,” Weinstein told the meeting. “We are the voice of the legal profession; we advocate on behalf of lawyers. But we are also the advocate for those who don’t have a voice,” including the mentally ill, indigenous people and those who struggle with addiction. It’s better, he said, to address problems at the outset and save money and lives.
The resolution is not talking about drug traffickers, added Regina Crown Loreley Berra, who seconded the motion. These are the homeless, the mentally ill and drug addicts who are criminalized for non-violent behavior. Research supports it and the U.S. Attorney-General recently announced plans to move away from mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offences.
I had the opportunity recently to attend the Michener Award ceremony at Rideau Hall, a night that celebrates outstanding public service in journalism. The award was established in 1970 under the late Roland Michener, then governor-general, which is how the media rabble (I include myself) came to be sampling wine and canapés in the stately halls of Canada’s national home.
This year, the Michener went to the Ottawa Citizen and Postmedia News for coverage of the “robocall affair,” a series of stories produced by Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher about fraudulent telephone messages that sent voters to the wrong polling stations in the 2011 federal election.
In his remarks, Governor-General David Johnston made the connection between public service journalism, the rule of law and the pursuit of justice. “Law without the pursuit of justice is just so many words,” he said. “It is the pursuit of justice that compels our best journalists to do their important work.”
The pursuit of justice is a tough sell in today’s competitive media market. There were rumblings throughout the evening about shrinking budgets for investigative reporting. McGregor praised his organization for applying all its resources to an important story, a rarity in today’s newsrooms. And fewer media outlets have designated reporters for legal affairs, hampering the ability of journalists to cultivate the sources and knowledge needed to ferret out stories that otherwise get lost in the daily buzz.
This should concern every citizen who cares about transparency and accountability. Sometimes the pursuit of justice means shining a light on corruption or failures of public policy. As the Michener nominees demonstrate, real change can result when the media dedicates itself to this task.
These are challenging times for the media. Let’s hope it doesn’t lose sight of its role in the pursuit of justice. Otherwise our ideals are just so many words.
Beverley Spencer is editor-in-chief of National Magazine and executive editor of CCCA Magazine