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The Hill: Long summer of government discord with legal profession

The long, nasty summer Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Justice Minister Peter MacKay spent attacking Canadian courts and the judiciary is almost over now.

It’s all been so ugly, and we have so little to show for it besides looking like fools around the world.

It began back in May when Harper went after Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin with a completely unnecessary personal attack on her because the summer before she had tried to call him to flag a potential legal issue in appointing a Federal Court judge to the top court.

She should have known better. You don’t call someone like Harper to give him helpful advice. You call him up only to tell him what a great guy he is or else you stay away completely and let him take his lumps on his own.

Harper stewed in silence for months and then finally came out with his public smear against McLachlin. Eleven former Canadian Bar Association presidents joined outgoing CBA head Fred Headon in criticizing Harper’s comments about McLachlin.

Nobody in the public or the legal community was on Harper’s side. What had he been thinking? Had no one in his office given him advice?

Less than a month later at a meeting of the Ontario Bar Association, Justice Minister Peter MacKay talked about why, in his opinion, there are still so few women judges.

MacKay replied that women fear circuit-court jobs might take them away from their children.

Headon challenged MacKay to back up his outrageous remark with some statistics. MacKay replied he had never made any such remark, but so far nobody has played back a voice recording to jog his memory.

MacKay decided it would be wise to pass up the CBA conference in St. John’s last week. He had already planned his summer schedule, he said. The conference is an annual event planned a year ahead of time and justice ministers always attend, except those trying to snub the judiciary and the legal profession.

But then again, if MacKay was once again going to make some sort of stupid remark about women, it might be better for him to stay away, especially since he could almost be sure to get at least one question about his new prostitution law that appears to be heading for an eventual constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, news of Harper’s ill-considered attack on our chief justice made its way around the world. Last month, the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists sent Harper a letter.

It said he should never have tried to smear McLachlin and that he should apologize for having intruded on the independence of the judiciary. Harper flatly refused to budge or apologize. Last week, McLachlin said she had moved on from the issue.

And then this week, the United Nations announced a noted Canadian jurist would head a war crimes investigation in relation to the conflict in Gaza.

William Schabas teaches international law at Middlesex University in England and is a member of the editorial board of the prestigious Israel Law Review.

Rather than complimenting the UN on choosing a Canadian, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird attacked Schabas and accused him of being anti-Israel.

Schabas replied that if he were anti-Israel, he wouldn’t be serving on the editorial board of the Israeli law publication.

It’s true that Schabas once said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should “probably be in the dock of an international court.” It wasn’t a nice thing to say about the Israeli leader, but then half of Israelis aren’t big fans of Netanyahu either. But that doesn’t make them anti-Israel.

“Like everybody inside and outside Israel, I disagree with some people,” said Schabas. “Is everyone in Israel who has an opinion about Netanyahu anti-Israel?”

What Schabas didn’t address is the fact that Harper is a big fan of Netanyahu. Baird, of course, takes his orders from Harper, and so the Canadian foreign minister knows when to attack someone who has said something rather harsh about a good friend of his boss.

Schabas isn’t about to step down from his UN posting just to please Baird. But it’s about time this summer comes to an end. We’ve all had a long, hard summer.

Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is

  • Ben Hanuka
    One does not need to be a “fan” of Prime Minister Netanyahu to recognize that William Schabas is biased on the extreme end of the range against Israel and is thus unfit to sit as a judge of Israel’s activities, based on fundamental principles of justice. Having liberal views and not being a “fan” of Prime Minister Harper or the Canadian conservative government has nothing to do with recognizing that Prof. Schabas is wholly unfit to judge Israel, given his great bias.

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