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Federal lawyers taking on government over political candidacy

|Written By Tali Folkins

The issue over when federal government lawyers can run for office is heating up with a senior official in the Department of Justice launching a legal challenge over the issue and a prosecutor making the political leap despite a decision denying her leave to do so.

‘I decided I really wanted to do this and I don’t want to be someone who passes an opportunity just in the interest of job security,’ says Emilie Taman.

Earlier this month, Emilie Taman cleaned out her office and turned in her security pass at work as she began what she terms an “unauthorized leave of absence” from her job with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. As of early last week, Taman hadn’t yet heard back from her employer but she expects to lose her job.

The move comes as a senior official in the department who’s hoping to run in the election for the Liberals in Quebec has launched a legal challenge over the constitutionality of provisions in the Public Service Employment Act. Claude Provencher, general counsel and a regional director at Justice Canada, is, like Taman, asking the Federal Court to overturn a Public Service Commission decision denying him leave. In his affidavit, Provencher stated: “I feel that the law and the Public Service Commission are placing on me an excessive burden with respect to the exercise of my constitutional rights.”

Taman, who wants to run for the NDP nomination in the riding Ottawa-Vanier, had applied for a leave of absence about 10 months ago. Her employer, however, refused after concluding her ability to return to her work after taking part in an election campaign might be “impaired or perceived to be impaired.” Taman applied for a judicial review, but the hearing won’t happen until next September. That’s too late for her to wait.

Despite the consequences, Taman is philosophical about her situation. “I decided I really wanted to do this and I don’t want to be someone who passes an opportunity just in the interest of job security,” she says. “I thought if this doesn’t pan out, there’s something out there for me and I look forward to finding out what that is.”

Was it a difficult decision?

“Yes and no,” she says. “It was a lot to walk away from. A lot.”

Losing her job will mean saying goodbye not only to the rewards of working for the public service but also losing her former status as an internal candidate for federal jobs in Ottawa. If her bid fails, she says, she knows she may be facing a period of unemployment. But she’s confident she has the skills to land on her feet.

Taman says her decision to run was the culmination of a dream she’s had for a long time. She has had political aspirations, she says, since she was very young, although her career as a lawyer led her for a time along a different path. Then, over the past five years, she says, her interest in politics grew as she became “incredibly frustrated” with the cynicism she saw in the system, legislation she feels was disrespectful of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and what she describes as the executive’s disrespect toward the courts. “It’s just one of those things,” she says. “The more it kind of chips away at you, the more frustrated you feel with how things are going.”

Taman has already won the endorsement of one prominent Canadian, her mother. She’s the daughter of former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who voiced her approval on Taman’s Facebook page the Sunday after she left her job.

Another source of encouragement for Taman is a Conservative candidate. Maureen Harquail, who will be representing the Conservatives in the Toronto riding of Don Valley East next fall, says she has spoken to Taman about similar difficulties she herself faced in 2004. Harquail, also a public prosecutor at the time, has also faced challenges in her efforts to run for public office. She challenged the Public Service Commission’s decision on her request for leave before the Federal Court. The court found problems with the decision to deny her leave, and the commission approved a second request in order to run in the 2011 election.

Harquail, who now works as general counsel and deputy director at a Crown agency, the Ontario Racing Commission, hasn’t had to apply for leave to run this fall since provincial rules allow it. “I fully support Emilie. I wish her well in her run and certainly in her judicial quest as well,” says Harquail. “It’s a shame that we have to revisit these things 10 years later.”

Harquail acknowledges that she, too, will have to say goodbye to her job if she wins but she’s fine with that. “For me actually, it’s not something I struggled with at all because it’s something that I’m striving for,” she says.

For Paul Lefebvre, another lawyer planning to run this fall, the decision to run wasn’t entirely easy. Lefebvre, a tax lawyer and former commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission who will be running for the Liberals in Sudbury, Ont., says that on the one hand the decision to run was simply a logical next step in serving the community, something he already does as chair of a number of local community organizations.

On the other hand, Lefebvre says he had to carefully weigh family considerations before making his decision. And if he wins, he says, he’ll definitely miss the practice of law, something he had done at firms of all sizes before becoming a sole practitioner.

For more, see "Should prosecutors be able to run for political office?" and "Decision against federal lawyer's election run sparks outrage in Ottawa."

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