OTTAWA — Liberal MPs have spiked a motion that would have seen the Commons justice committee hold hearings on the leak of information about the last selection process for the Supreme Court of Canada — a leak widely viewed as a political attack on former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
In an hour-long meeting that consisted mostly of partisan bickering, the Liberals used their 5-4 majority on the committee to reject the motion, backed by both Conservatives and New Democrats. The motion did not give a list of potential witnesses, but called for the committee to sit additional hours to study the matter and report back by May 31.
“Is this the perfect venue to investigate this matter? No it isn’t,” said Conservative MP Michael Cooper during the meeting. “But seeing as the Prime Minister is seeming to take no action, and given that the attorney general has shown no interest in pursuing the matter, we’re left with where we are today.”
In late March, while the SNC-Lavalin affair was at full boil, CTV News and The Canadian Press both reported — citing anonymous sources — that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had disagreed with Wilson-Raybould’s choice to replace chief justice Beverley McLachlin on the court in 2017. Wilson-Raybould had preferred Manitoba Chief Justice Glenn Joyal, the reports said, but Trudeau rejected that choice because he saw Joyal as too critical of how courts apply the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Trudeau eventually chose to appoint Alberta Judge Sheilah Martin to the top court and promoted sitting Justice Richard Wagner to the role of chief justice. The reports said the episode led Trudeau to doubt Wilson-Raybould’s judgment, and it soured their relationship long before the SNC-Lavalin affair came up.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the leak did not come from him or his office.
The leak was widely condemned by organizations representing lawyers and judges, who described it as a threat to the integrity of a selection process that is supposed to be highly confidential. At the time, Wilson-Raybould herself also condemned the leak, said she was not the source of it, and called for “some sort of investigation as to the source of this information.”
Joyal also issued a statement, saying he feared that “someone is using my previous candidacy to the Supreme Court of Canada to further an agenda unrelated to the appointment process. This is wrong.”
At Wednesday’s committee meeting, opposition members argued that this appeared to be the only real chance to get to the bottom of the matter.
“The integrity of how we appoint people to the highest court of our land is at issue,” said the NDP’s justice critic Murray Rankin during the meeting.
He added that it’s personal for him, as he was one of the two opposition members, along with Conservative MP Rob Nicholson, who sat on the nomination advisory committee on the agreement they keep the information secret.
“I am under a cloud of suspicion, as is my colleague from the Conservative Party,” he said. “I was prepared to go to my grave with the information as to who were the finalists in the process.”
He also rebutted Liberal accusations that they were trying to haul journalists before the committee, saying he’s focused on who leaked the information, not on journalists for doing their job in publishing it.
“I want to hear from people in the Department of Justice,” Rankin said. “I want to hear from people in Prime Minister’s Office. Somebody leaked it. It was either my Conservative friend, myself, or an official.”
Liberal MPs said they were rejecting the motion because the committee is a poor venue for investigating the leak, and pointed out there were also leaks of information over the botched 2013 Supreme Court nomination of Marc Nadon at a time when a Conservative government was in power.
The Liberals accused the opposition of just trying to play politics and keep the SNC-Lavalin affair alive in the news.
“This is really becoming an abuse of process, when we’re trying to politicize everything and trying to make sure that we don’t get around to dealing with all of the issues that Canadians expect us to deal with,” Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi said.
Rankin argued that the Liberals have condemned leaks in much stronger terms in the past. He pointed to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale calling it “very, very serious” in 2017 when the Omar Khadr $10.5-million settlement payment was leaked. The Privy Council Office went on to investigate that leak, though it won’t say if the hunt was successful.
In 2015, the government referred an investigation to the RCMP into who leaked information about a $700-million shipbuilding project; it eventually resulted in a criminal charge against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, who has a trial scheduled for August.
Rankin told reporters that he thinks decisions over which leaks to investigate “get made on political grounds, sadly, and the administration of justice, and Canadians, deserve better.”
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