Don’t say that our justice system is rigged

Immediately after he trashed the independence of federal judges this week, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet insisted he had done no such thing.

Granted, Donald Trump has made it easier for politicians of all types to perform these feats of rhetorical contortion.

But here in Canada, it should still be astonishing to hear a political leader — even a Quebec nationalist — take a casual, drive-by shot at the Canadian judicial system.

Blanchet was reacting to Tuesday’s ruling of the Federal Court of Appeal, which gave the go-ahead to construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

No surprise, the Bloc leader said — the judges who delivered the ruling were appointed by the federal government, so they just gave the “boss” what he wanted to hear.

For the benefit of those who might not have been sure they heard him correctly in French, Blanchet then repeated the remarkable accusation in English:

“What we see is that judges, which incidentally have been named by the federal government, have interpreted Canadian laws and that clearly Canadian laws say that when the federal government wants something, that’s the thing that’s going to happen, whatever provinces might say.”

He said this would also happen if the Energy East pipeline project — unpopular in Quebec — was ever revived and similarly challenged in federal courts.

“This is the preview for what might happen if there comes again this idea of Energy East going through Quebec,” he said. “Canada is the boss.”

Blanchet was speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill, where he was sent by voters last fall to help make Canadian laws. Asked pointedly if he was slamming the judges’ independence, Blanchet demurred.

“I didn’t hear myself say any such thing,” he said. “I said they are nominated by one government.”

This is not an encouraging new frontier in the age-old tension between Quebec and the rest of Canada, which has been guided in large part by respect for the law on both sides.

Judges aren’t perfect. Coincidentally, Tuesday was also the day when the government introduced a law — previously supported in principle by all parties — to usher in mandatory training for judges in sexual-assault law.

This is legislation that was originally sponsored by former Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose, which was stalled in the Senate and ultimately died when Parliament dissolved before last year’s election.

It is one thing to say that judges need improvement, and quite another to say, as Blanchet essentially did this week, that the courts are rigged or biased.

Even the politicians who rail against “judicial activism,” as the former Conservative government often did, tend to be careful about casting the judges as tools of any government or political party.

The current version of the Bloc Quebecois in Parliament doesn’t talk as much about separation from Canada as its previous incarnations have, but it remains a mark of our democratic maturity that we have representatives in Parliament that would prefer the breakup of the nation.

The thing that keeps it all civil and mature is respect for the law and institutions of government. Thanks to a Supreme Court of Canada reference case and the federal Clarity Act of the late 1990s, we even have a legal blueprint for a breakup, should it come to that.

I do not recall the Bloc Quebecois or the Parti Quebecois government at the time arguing that the Supreme Court was filled with federal appointees, biased against the province’s interests.

A train wreck between politics and the law is currently underway in the United States, where the impeachment hearings have demonstrated that it is indeed possible for a president to be above the law.

The only way for a politician to get above the law, though, is by first dragging it down — by casting the legal system as rigged and political.

So far in Canada, players on both sides of the hottest national political debates — from pipelines to Quebec’s secularism law — have been treating the courts as neutral, if occasionally irritating arbiters of the path forward.

Alberta has been frustrated by some of the court rulings on pipelines, but its politicians have resisted the temptation to directly link judges or the courts to its political adversaries in Ottawa.

Blanchet appeared to be trying to walk back his remarks on Tuesday — or at least trying to keep them contained — when he shut down further questions on his feelings about judicial independence.

That was a good call; perhaps the Bloc leader realized where that road was taking him, and the whole tangled debate about pipelines and national unity.

Accusations of a rigged legal system are no longer surprising in the U.S., but they are still conversation-stoppers here — thankfully.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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