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OTTAWA — In sports, they call it a hospital pass — a poorly executed pass from a teammate that leaves the recipient in plaster. Since becoming justice minister in January, David Lametti has received so many hospital passes, he should be covered head to foot in an orthopedic cast.
First there was the SNC-Lavalin file, then the Mark Norman case. Lametti should be cowering in the corner of his office wondering what else can possibly go wrong on the justice file.
Instead, on the recent Friday afternoon he met two Postmedia reporters in his office, he was remarkably upbeat, touting the government’s record of achievement on justice issues and hinting at what might come next if the Liberals are re-elected.
He said the scandals that have dominated the headlines do not reflect the sum of the Liberal government’s achievements. Rather, he depicts a country that has been changed fundamentally.
“I think we have delivered real change on a number of different issues. We’re in a very different place now than we were in 2015. I’m quite proud of that — less people in poverty, we have brought in marijuana legalization and regulation. People woke up the next morning and everything, I think, still worked. And the same is true on medical assistance in dying.”
The law legalizing pot has been perhaps the biggest public policy change during the Trudeau government’s mandate.
Lametti said the roll-out has been surprisingly smooth. “If you had told me in 2015, when we got elected, that the biggest challenge we would face was supply. I would say ‘I’ll take that’. The supply question is something that will take care of itself over time.
"I think we have delivered real change on a number of different issues. We're in a very different place now than we were in 2015."
“We never thought it would replace the illegal market overnight. And the evidence seems to indicate that we’ve replaced 25 to 30 per cent of it. But our projections also indicate that that number will go up over the next two to three years to perhaps something as high as 75 or 80 per cent of the illegal market.”
While many conservative critics have taken issue with the changes to the laws on pot and assisted dying, as many progressives have expressed disappointment at the slow pace of justice reform, such as the abolition of the mandatory minimum sentences, and the expansion of police search and seizure powers in the new impaired driving legislation.
Lametti suggested that the Liberals will move on mandatory minimums in a second mandate.
“It’s still very much on the radar. I’m one of the people that spoke publicly on the matter and continue to hold the opinion that we need to look at the question of MMPs (mandatory minimum penalties) with a view to eliminating most of them, (or) to at least studying them carefully.”
He refuted the idea the new impaired driving law has created a civil liberties issue. “So far, I think it’s fair to say that it is working. We’re pretty confident moving into the future, that this is going to save lives.
“It’s normal, it’s natural, for the defence bar to try to pick holes in a system. I fully respect that role to make sure they test the various limits of the law — they perform a critical role in the system. So it is neither surprising nor unwelcome, actually, that they criticize what we’ve done… But I think generally it’s working.”
It has been a whirlwind four months but the former law professor from McGill University said academia has prepared him for the stresses of ministerial office. “Academia teaches you to have a thick skin. One thing that people don’t realize about academics unless they’ve been around them is that you have to go around the world and peddle your wares…You have to learn to defend yourself calmly. And you have to learn to not take things personally because you know that people are actually trying to advance ideas that actually better your paper. And you’re going to go to dinner with them when it’s all over.”
Still, academia offered no preparation for the tricky balancing act of being both attorney general and justice minister in the wake of the SNC saga.
Would he have felt aggrieved, if he had decided to prosecute SNC and the decision was revisited by his colleagues in government — the allegation made by his predecessor, Jody Wilson-Raybould?
Lametti said he was not privy to the discussions Wilson-Raybould referred to, but he has his own red lines.
“If I find myself in a situation where I feel I’ve received undue pressure, I will react immediately and vocally at the appropriate level… I have my lines, if you will, and nobody has crossed them on that file, or any other file.”
He was circumspect about the SNC case, which is still being litigated, including on the question of whether he has sought outside legal advice on a deferred prosecution agreement.
But he is more open about the Norman case, in which charges were stayed earlier this month.
He said he was satisfied with his department’s response to the request for documents from Norman’s defence team. He denied that the SNC and Norman cases have damaged the government’s reputation with regard to prosecutorial independence.
“I don’t think it has taken a massive hit. The director of prosecutions, as well as the prosecutor in the (Norman) case, has said there was no interference. (On SNC) nobody has claimed in testimony in front of the justice committee that anyone did anything illegal. The only claims are coming from the opposition. And frankly, I remain to be convinced.”
Lametti suggested the appropriate response to growing cynicism with the government and its handling of the justice system is to point out that in the Norman case, it worked. “Charges were stayed when evidence came to light that seemed to lead the prosecutor to the conclusion that there was not a reasonable chance of conviction. That’s the way the system’s supposed to work.”
But proof that politics can make even smart people stupid was apparent in Lametti’s contention that the blame for Norman’s problems rests at least partly with former Harper-era ministers, whose evidence appears to have persuaded the prosecutor to stay charges.
“If other people on the opposition side of the House had information, they should have given it to the RCMP a lot sooner. Maybe Mr. Norman wouldn’t have had such a long ordeal,” he said.
A sleeper election issue that may help the Liberals in Quebec, but also risks a backlash in the rest of Canada, was the Trudeau government’s decision last week to allow Quebec to have a formal say in the appointment of Supreme Court justices from that province. Lametti was able to divert any criticism of actions taken before he was appointed justice minister in January. But this happened on his watch. He downplayed the significance of the change.
“It formalizes something that Quebec has been asking for a long time, which is a greater independent voice, I suppose, a greater Quebec voice in the identification and selection of shortlisted candidates for the Supreme Court.
“I think most Quebecers will readily admit that the ultimate decision to appoint a Supreme Court justice falls with the Prime Minister of Canada. And that hasn’t changed here.
"I've got a civil law degree, and I taught civil law for many years at McGill. I understand the real visceral reaction that you will get if you tamper with it."
“What we’ve done is create a committee in which Quebec will be able to add two people of their own to that committee, and they’ve chosen quite responsibly.”
For appointments outside Quebec, a seven-person advisory board proposes a shortlist of three to five candidates, which is then reviewed by the chief justice, relevant attorneys general and parliamentary committees before being submitted to the prime minister.
In Quebec, the advisory board will now be almost entirely from Quebec, with two members representing the Quebec government. Consultations will be held in Quebec, with recommendations passed to the premier and then the prime minister.
Lametti said he will lead a parallel track consultation, including involving parliamentary committees. But the special treatment for Quebec is sure to rankle other provinces that would like to have more say in judicial appointments.
The justice minister defended the development because Quebec is a civil law jurisdiction.
“The private law of Quebec is different from the rest of Canada, most of the rest of North America, with the exception of Louisiana. And that has been deemed to be really central to Quebec’s identity. It was always the French language, civil code, and to some extent, Roman Catholicism, depending on where you were historically, as being the indices of Quebec distinctiveness.
“I’ve got a civil law degree, and I taught civil law for many years at McGill. I understand the real visceral reaction that you will get if you tamper with it.
“The Supreme Court has always had a recognition of a tradition that evolved in which three judges would come from Quebec, in order to deal with any civil law cases and a lot of the French language cases. Something that we’ve been talking about since Meech Lake is a way to give Quebec a bigger role in picking those judges.
“I think that this, frankly, historic agreement, the fact we’ve got a Quebec government and the federal government agreeing on this without any kind of public spat, I think it’s extraordinary. And I’m frankly quite proud.”
Whether it causes the Liberals more self-inflicted fractures will become clearer as we approach election day.
-With files from Brian Platt
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019