Notes for an address by the Honourable David Lametti at the Empire Club
Notes for an address by
The Honourable David Lametti
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada
Royal York Hotel
February 28, 2019
Check against delivery
Thank you so much for your kind introduction and warm welcome.
I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Wendat, the Anishnaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Métis, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.
So, what is that curse about living in interesting times?
I will admit that the first few weeks in this job have been eventful. But I am proud to speak to you today as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and thank you again for the warm welcome.
I know many of you have been following the news out of Ottawa, and I do want to spend some time on those issues today.
First, though, I want to a take a few minutes to tell you a bit about who I am and what I believe in. I think it is important for Canadians to understand the values and considerations that will inform the way I approach my responsibilities in this new role. That includes the serious questions that have arisen in my first weeks.
Growing up, it is safe to say that I never expected that one day I would be Canada’s justice minister.
My parents were Italian immigrants. They were in their early 20s when they arrived in Canada shortly after the Second World War, far from family and everything familiar.
They eventually settled in Port Colborne, in southwestern Ontario, which is where I was born. Port Colborne has changed a lot since I was a kid, like lots of places in that corner of Ontario, but at the time it was a small, industrial town, where most families on my block had at least one person working at the nearby steel mill, cement plant or nickel refinery.
My dad was a homebuilder, and he died young, at the age of 49. My mother worked at a number of jobs as she raised me and two of my three older brothers on her own.
Their story is one of generational sacrifice: they sacrificed so that their children could have a better life than them. They came to this country because they believed Canada was the kind of place where that kind of sacrifice could be meaningful.
They taught me the importance of hard work, getting an education, the values of inclusion and kindness which instilled in me the conviction that there is no contradiction between being a good person and being a successful one.
I cannot overstate the gratitude I feel towards my parents for the opportunities that they made possible for me. Not everyone is so lucky.
I left home to go to the University of Toronto, at St. Michael’s College, just up the way on University Avenue. I loved my time at St. Mike’s. It was a special, even unique moment to be studying politics in Canada. Our Constitution was being patriated by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government. The debate was unfolding right in front of me. As a student in my early 20s, I was witness to the pivot point in Canadian constitutional and legal history and it was thrilling.
You could say I am a child of the Charter. It was born as I was finding my way intellectually. As I watched the final signing ceremony on Parliament Hill I knew that our country had accomplished a great thing and was moving into a new era.
For me, the Charter was an affirmation of many of the values I held and grew up with. Here was a document that affirmed that Canada was a place where each individual would have the right to pursue his or her version of the good life.
No matter where you come from, or who you are, our collective aspiration is that you should have the right to the Charter’s protections, including the right to make your voice heard. And these rights should never be taken for granted.
The debates I witnessed and the vision of what this country should be were a large part of the reason why I wanted to go to law school. So after I graduated, I headed down the 401 to continue my studies in the law faculty at McGill University. It was a conscious choice I made, to study in a part of the country I did not know well at the time.
Four years at McGill followed by a year clerking at the Supreme Court of Canada only reinforced my desire to take advantage of the opportunities I had been provided with, and use them to advance the beliefs I have described today.
During my time at McGill and as a clerk at the Supreme Court right afterward, I met two of my life’s mentors: Rod MacDonald, who was president of the Law Commission of Canada, and Chairman of the Faculty of Law at McGill, and Justice Peter Cory, for whom I clerked.
These two exceptional men were role models for me. They embodied a deeply ethical approach to the law, and drummed into me the importance of equality as a central value of our justice system.
More than anything, though, what stood out with both of them was their absolute commitment to treating the people around them with respect, and giving those people the tools and freedom to grow and, once again, make their voices and ideas heard.
For the better part of two decades, I carried these values into my work as a professor in the Law Faculty at McGill. I am proud to see many of my students rise to important jobs in the legal profession, including a few in my own office. The ones who make me proudest, though, are the ones who have chosen to use the tools that a legal education provides to give back to their chosen communities. In doing so, they are recognizing the reality that not everyone has access to the kinds of opportunities that all Canadians deserve.
All of these experiences have not just given me a passion for the law. They have also reinforced the importance for me of living in a country where we as Canadians can pursue our own version of the good life in all the many forms that takes.
It is also these values that motivated my desire to run for office. I loved teaching at McGill. But I am someone, one of many, who entered into politics in 2015 because I believed in the core Canadian values that are reflected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and our independent courts.
I believe now, as I did then, that you cannot take anything for granted. There are forces in the world that would seek to undermine values we hold dear. As Canadians we must actively work to ensure that these values continue to thrive.
Over the past four years, those are precisely the kinds of values and principles the government has fought for. We have provided progressive, forward-looking Government that has not been afraid to embrace transformational change. That reality should not be forgotten amid the din of the current news cycle, about which I would like to say a few words.
Three weeks ago, allegations began appearing in the Globe and Mail concerning ongoing proceedings involving SNC-Lavalin, and the previous Attorney General’s interactions with the Prime Minister and others concerning those proceedings.
Until Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony yesterday, those allegations remained generally uncertain and based at least in part on anonymous accounts.
Nevertheless, by the time I appeared a week ago before the Standing Committee on Justice to speak to these issues, it had become clear that the Canadian public deserved the chance to understand the events at issue.
It is, after all, a pillar of our democracy that Canadians have confidence in the proper administration and oversight of our justice system. As Attorney General, I believe it is my role to do everything I can to preserve this confidence.
For that reason, in my testimony at committee, I committed to doing my part to provide Canadians with the transparency they deserve. At the same time I insisted that any discussion should not undermine the rule of law, the right to a fair hearing in active cases, or the integrity of the position of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
That meant any responsible review must account for the fact that SNC-Lavalin is currently engaged in two legal proceedings.
In other words, despite the opposition’s claims to the contrary, we must recognize that transparency can only happen if we approach the conversations in a considered and responsible manner.
So how did the Government respond? We took the exceptional step of removing all obstacles that would prevent a former Attorney General from speaking to matters that occurred under her tenure; including waiving solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidence.
Without question, her testimony was an important step towards achieving transparency.
The Justice Committee and the Ethics Commissioner will move forward in this process, hearing the perspectives of various individuals. As they do so, I intend to maintain my commitment to transparency while ensuring the integrity of the rule of law.
I began my remarks by trying to describe the kind of person I am and the values I hold. Whether it was in the working class neighbourhoods of Port Colborne, in supporting Justice Cory at the Supreme Court, or in helping my students to explore new and complex ideas at the law faculty at McGill, I am committed to a Canada where we can openly debate our views under the framework of the rule of law.
Whatever one’s opinions on what is being said before the Standing Committee on Justice, the fact that important witnesses are being heard on a matter of significant public interest is a positive thing.
Before I leave this particular topic, there is one more point I would like to make.
The current news agenda has generated a great deal of commentary about the role of the Attorney General, one of the two roles I perform as a member of cabinet in addition to Minister of Justice.
There is no person who is capable of doing these jobs alone, whether that’s the job of the Attorney General, the Prime Minister or the Clerk of the Privy Council. In fact, just like in the world outside politics, each of us is made stronger by talking to each other and coming to better understandings together.
It is important to remember that while the Attorney General sits at a certain distance from his cabinet colleagues, in Canada, unlike in other countries, he does not work in isolation from them or the important experiences or considerations those colleagues bring to the table. I believe that these discussions can improve the quality of decision making. The Attorney General is not an island, even in circumstances where a final decision rests with him or her.
There can be no question as to the importance of Canada’s Attorney General in safeguarding the rule of law, nor should we leave any doubt as to our Government’s commitment to the role that the Attorney General must play.
I spoke earlier of our Government’s willingness to embrace change, and I believe we have a good story to tell on that score, despite what is in the news right now. I want to spend some time on what our Government has done so far.
Our Government passed legislation to create a legal framework for medical assistance in dying, in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Carter. This issue is complex, emotional and deeply personal. Our legislation struck a balance between giving autonomy to those who seek medically assisted dying, and protecting the vulnerable.
As well, our Government passed legislation to legalize and strictly regulate cannabis. The sky did not fall. Legalization embodies an acceptance of Canada as it is now. If there is any one initiative that defines transformational change, this is it.
Hand-in-hand with legalization and strict regulation of cannabis was legislation to modernize Canada’s impaired driving laws. These changes were the most significant in this area since the late-1960s. They will make our roads safer and save lives
We updated the law of sexual assault for the first time in a generation in keeping with our commitment to ensure survivors of sexual assault and gender-based violence are treated with compassion and respect. Our changes clarify and strengthen the law related to consent, admissibility of evidence and legal representation for a survivor who brings forward a complaint. We are committed to ongoing consultations with stakeholders on this matter.
For the first time in decades, we are proposing significant updates to family laws to ensure they are squarely focused on promoting the best interests of the child. That legislation, C-78, is now in the Senate. I will do all that I can to get this bill over the finish line.
I feel the same way about bill C-75, our bold reforms to the criminal justice system, designed to address court delays. This important legislation is also before the Senate and I am looking forward to seeing it debated and passed.
There are other legislative changes that speak to our values.
We believe that Canadians should be free to be who they are. That inspired our Government to pass ground-breaking legislation that adds gender identity and expression as a prohibited ground for discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. This same legislation also added gender identity and expression to the list of distinguishing characteristics of an “identifiable group” protected by the hate speech provisions of the Criminal Code.
And as a Montréaler by way of Ontario, I wanted to highlight one initiative which matters a great deal to me.
Our Government restored the Court Challenges Program, that had been cancelled.
We are not just working to transform and modernize our laws. We now have a process for appointing judges that is transparent, inclusive and accountable to Canadians.
At the Superior Court level, more than 260 judges have been appointed since November 2015. And these exceptional jurists represent the diversity that strengthens Canada. Of these judges, 55 percent are women, eight at Indigenous, 22 are members of visible minority communities, 12 self-identified as LGBTQ2S and three self-identified as with disabilities.
These appointments underline our Government’s commitment to re-shape the bench to better reflect Canada as it is today.
Canada as it is today is a great country. But for Indigenous Peoples, Canada as it is today needs work. A lot of it.
Our Government is committed to fundamentally transforming its relationship with Indigenous Peoples.
Today we have taken another important step in that journey towards reconciliation. This morning my colleague, Minister Seamus O'Regan, Minister of Indigenous Services, introduced a new bill on Indigenous child and family services. This proposed legislation was co-developed with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis partners, and would affirm Indigenous peoples’ inherent right to exercise jurisdiction over child and family services. It contains principles that would guide how services are delivered to Indigenous children in jurisdictions and regions of the country while aiming to reduce what my colleague Minister Jane Philpott has described as the humanitarian crisis of our time, the number of Indigenous children in care. This is a ground-breaking bill, affirming a Section 35 right in legislation, as opposed to waiting for a court to do it. I can't understate the importance.
My Department, Justice Canada, has been doing its part as well to contribute to renewed Crown-Indigenous relationships based on rights, respect, cooperation and partnership. These include releasing the Principles Respecting the Government of Canada’s Relationship with Indigenous Peoples and the Attorney General’s Directive on Civil Litigation Involving Indigenous Peoples.
But there is so much more to do. It is a source of national shame that Indigenous people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, both as victims and offenders.
The statistics are appalling. The rate of violent victimization among Indigenous people in Canada is more than double that of non-Indigenous people.
The overall rate of violent victimization among Indigenous women is close to triple that of non-Indigenous women.
These figures, and the tragic reality they illustrate, are unacceptable and must change.
In practical terms, for my part that means continuing to work with our Indigenous partners on bail reform which is addressed in C-75. That legislation also tackles Administration of Justice Offences. As many of us know, these offences can function as a vulnerable individual’s entry into the revolving door of criminal justice. More broadly, I know that restorative justice is a priority for our Indigenous partners, and I want you to know that it is a priority for me as well.
The goal of all of these measures is to transform how Indigenous Peoples experience the criminal justice system.
So that is where we have been, where we are and where we are going.
At the heart of all of that policy rests a principled core that guides the work we do.
Canadians must have confidence that their institutions act in the public interest.
Those institutions must act as our necessary checks and balances. Public prosecutors must exercise their discretion independently and free from political or partisan consideration.
Public servants must be free to provide fulsome and frank advice that is non-partisan in nature.
The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner must fulfill his independent role that was given to him by Parliament.
Judicial independence must be safeguarded.
This is the essential vision of the country that I have defended and promoted through my working life, one informed by the places I come from, the people who influenced me, the fundamental laws which govern our great country.
It is a vision of Canada that I commit to do my best to uphold for as long as I have the privilege of serving in this position.
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today and I look forward to taking your questions.
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