Canadians Need to Seriously Rethink the Role of the Justice Minister

The SNC-Lavalin scandal has exposed much more than just a few cracks in our federal Liberal party; it has rocked some of our most basic assumptions about our parliamentary structure and has left many of us asking what, if any, role the Minister of Justice should continue to serve in this country.

In her testimony before the House Justice Committee last week, the former Minister of Justice delivered one bombshell after another.   

In no uncertain terms, Jody Wilson-Raybould told Members of Parliament that she experienced undue political pressure in exercising her discretion as Justice Minister in relation to the on-going federal prosecution of Montreal-based construction-giant SNC-Lavalin.

Free from the binds of ministerial and solicitor-client privilege, she described conversations, text messages and other correspondence with high-ranking members of the Liberal party, including the Prime Minister.  She characterized it as inappropriate in nature. 

In summary, Wilson-Raybould said that she felt on-going, undue pressure to interfere in the criminal proceedings against SNC-Lavalin.  She said that she was urged to consider the consequences of such proceedings, including the very real possibility that the company would leave Montreal altogether if prosecuted, in turn causing massive job loss and potentially affecting election results. 

Given that the Minister of Justice’s role is premised upon independence, her testimony was troubling to say the least.

After all, we expect that the Minister of Justice is to act as an Attorney General, disconnected from political considerations.  The independence of this office is one of the elements at the very foundation of our parliamentary system. 

Wilson-Raybould’s testimony therefore raises serious concerns about the inner culture of our presiding government; a culture that condones interference with independent offices for strategic political reasons. 

Indeed, the Liberal party is in trouble. 

Many, including Conservative-party leader Andrew Sheer, have called for Trudeau’s resignation.  It appears that Canadians are quickly losing faith in our governments affairs. 

But the problem here goes well beyond one particular political party’s practice. 

At its very core, this problem is one of structure.  It is a problem of duality. 

The Justice Minister is expected to be responsible for developing legal policy and legislation on behalf of the Justice Department, which is a deeply political role, while also providing legal advice to the executive branch of our government and representing them in legal proceedings. 

Between these duties, the potential for conflict is  rife, and so long as the roles of Justice Minister and Attorney General are conflated, independence from political considerations is a mirage.    

As an elected Member of Parliament, the role of the Justice Minister is, by definition, political; and beyond this, it is politically partisan to an astounding degree. It would not only be naïve, but politically illiterate to believe that any elected Member of Parliament -  no matter what their post - is free from political concerns. 

As an elected Member of Parliament, the Justice Minister must consider constituent concerns, re-election issues and key civic issues as they arise.  The nature of the position itself dictates that it is to remain un-divorced from political duties.  It is political invested. 

The conversations that Wilson-Raybould recounted were strategic political conversations.  They were centered around strategic political considerations that all governments must face.  To believe that any previous governments conducted themselves any differently would be wantonly foolish. 

Changing government, dismissing leaders or shuffling the Cabinet will not solve the core issue. 

Structural change is necessary. 

This is something that our fellow Brits realized years ago.  Although the office is still political in nature, it is not nearly as entangled as its’ Canadian counterpart. 

There, the office of the Attorney General exists outside of cabinet and the Attorney General is a non-cabinet minister.  Although they are accountable to Parliament, they are not accountable to voters in the same way the Canadian Minister of Justice is. 

This creates far less convoluted system, and one that is less susceptible to corruption. 

 When you consider that we inherited our parliamentary system from England, it makes no sense for us to have developed such a conundrum in our country.  In fact, there is no practical reason, beyond tradition, that the role of Attorney General and Justice Minister must be fused in Canada.   

To say that it should remain this way, as it has always been this way is an unsatisfactory response to an increasingly troubling problem. 

So, while it is tempting to place blame on the government and particular government officials in the wake of any political scandal, it may be wiser to take this opportunity to review our governmental structure and address underlying issues that have the potential to  plague our country’s prestige. 

The proper first step should be to untangle the role of Justice Minister from that of the Attorney General; and although the political storm may continue to rain down ever after that, at least our officials will finally know which umbrella to stand under. 

 Read this article in The Georgia Straight.


Sarah Leamon