Selley: Justin Trudeau’s symbolic agenda collides with itself at the Supreme Court

Can’t satisfy all groups on a nine-member court (more latitude with respect to all judicial appointments where government, as per the contrast between the 2016 baseline and subsequent appointments highlights. And while symbolism is important, the harder work lies with reducing inequalities and long-standing issues:

A few headlines from the past week: “Justice Mahmud Jamal is first person of colour nominated to the Supreme Court of Canada” (CBCthe Toronto Star, and The Guardian). “ ‘Taunted and harassed’ as a youth, judge Mahmud Jamal receives historic Supreme Court nomination” (CTV and the National Post, quoting Jamal’s application statement). “Judge Mahmud Jamal, who finished high school in Edmonton, nominated to Supreme Court of Canada” (the Edmonton Journal, scoring the all-important local angle).

The first sentence in The Globe and Mail’s story mentions that Jamal is a “frequently cited author on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” We learn later on about his copious qualifications and impressive record as a jurist. But the second sentence explains a conflict: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was “under pressure from minority and Indigenous organizations to make the Supreme Court more diverse.” And so “the Indigenous Bar Association is disappointed.”

The Supreme Court has some pretty spicy meatballs on its plate, not least the future of certain religious practices in certain parts of Quebec’s public service, and will have more spicy meatballs in the future. The retiring Rosalie Abella is no ordinary Supreme Court justice, but rather the standard-bearer for a very activist and flexible brand of judge. We might hear more about Jamal’s approach when he meets with parliamentary committees. But surely it’s odd how much more we seem to care about who he is than about how he thinks or how he might rule.

Justin Trudeau isn’t the first prime minister to be concerned with the symbolism of his appointments, and nor have the Canadian media only recently acquired an interest. Globe and Mail headline writers greeted Bertha Wilson’s appointment in 1982 with “First woman is appointed to Canada’s top court” (March 5). (This was followed by “Woman judge still avoiding press” (March 9) and finally “Woman justice to take oath” (March 26).) Abella’s and Louise Charron’s appointments in 2004 were hailed for approaching near-gender-parity on the top bench.

This is all for the good, to a large extent. In a jury trial, we are ostensibly judged by our peers. We shouldn’t want judges to be members of an exalted class. Ideally, the jurisprudence they create would reflect the full scope of Canadian experiences — of class, race, ethnicity, faith and so on.

But it’s not a stretch to say that Trudeau — Mr. “Because it’s 2015″ — is more obsessed with symbolism than is typical. And sometimes it makes his life far more difficult than it needs to be. On the Supreme Court, his wish to appoint an Indigenous justice runs smack into his pledge never to appoint a justice who can’t manage a hearing in both official languages — which is to say, his wish to placate Quebec nationalists at every possible turn.

“A fully bilingual Indigenous candidate who also meets regional requirements and conventions” is a very tough order to fill, as many articles in the press have explained. Fewer articles have noted how far offside this requirement is with Trudeau’s reconciliation agenda. Trudeau’s new rule for judges doesn’t just discount Indigenous languages entirely; it also demands Indigenous lawyers learn not just one settler tongue fluently, but both! In a recent interview with APTN, Harry LaForme, Canada’s first Indigenous appellate court judge, likened the policy to the assimilation of children at residential schools. It would be very awkward, if only more people noticed.

You see a somewhat different problem when it comes to the unfilled vacancy at Rideau Hall, which is seeing similar demands for a minority or Indigenous appointment. Either would be fine, obviously, just so long as they’re not on a mission to do anything other than be the Queen’s representative on Canadian soil. You can just imagine Trudeau and his advisers struggling with the concept, even after Julie Payette’s flameout and Paul Martin’s near-miss with obvious-separatist Michaëlle Jean. This is a chance to make a splash, to send a message!

But the returns diminish. Real people who need real improvements in their lives cannot be impressed by symbolism. And weakness for symbolism makes us overlook things. It’s a distraction. Many of Trudeau’s detractors, especially to his left, would suggest it has distracted him from actually making significant progress on issues central to his brand, and to which these symbolic appointments are meant to nod.

A pledge to eliminate boil-water advisories on reserves is worthless without eliminating boil-water advisories. Adopting or not adopting the UN declaration on Indigenous rights is worthless without implementing what’s in it. At some point after accepting the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had a whole section on unmarked and forgotten children’s gravesites, someone was going to have to pony up the money to look for those gravesites. It took until now.

I often argue there are maddeningly few fundamental differences between Liberal governance and Conservative governance in Canada — certainly not nearly enough to justify the intensity of the battles between them. Privileging action and disdaining empty symbolism is one principle Canadian conservatives should guard jealously, even if they don’t always apply it consistently themselves. It’s the only way to help real people with real problems.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: