Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada - Notes for an address at McLennan Ross Hall, Law Centre

Speech

March 4, 2019

The Honourable David Lametti, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

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Introduction

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you very much Dr. Paton for that kind introduction.

I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on Treaty 6 territory, traditional lands of First Nations and Métis people.

I also want to note the presence of Chief Justice Mary Moreau from the Court of Queen’s Bench.

I am honoured to have the opportunity to speak with all of you today and share some my story, my values as well as the important work my ministry is doing.

As some of you may already know, before going in to politics, I spent nearly 20 years as a law professor. I can see there are a number of my previous students here today.

Being in a room like this is familiar territory for me. It may seem like a cliché, but it is true. My students taught me an awful lot, and I am forever grateful for that experience. And I am grateful to be here, speaking with you.

And to the students, let me also say that I also know well the workload you all have and just how busy you are, so I thank you for attending today.

I want to start by commending you for choosing to pursue a profession that makes a real difference in the lives of Canadians.

It is an honour to serve as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. Being asked to uphold our Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and to respect and support the independence of the courts, are responsibilities that I do not take lightly.

My Story in brief:

I want to tell you a bit more about my upbringing since where I come from says a lot about what I believe today.

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 settled in Port Colborne, in southwestern Ontario, which is where I was born. Port Colborne has changed a lot since I was a kid. At the time it was a small, industrial town, where families on my block had at least one person working at either one of the steel mills in the Niagara Peninsula, at the flour mill, or at the 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 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.

Their example of hard work, the importance of education, values of inclusion and kindness, instilled in me the belief that there was 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. I loved my time at U of T. It was the early 1980s and 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 a rainy 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.

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.

I brought those same values to my work as a professor at McGill for the better part of two decades.

The combination of all of these experiences fostered within me a passion for the law that has grown as my career has progressed. For me, the law plays a critical role in fostering Canada’s well-earned reputation as a beacon of opportunity and protection for those from all walks of life.

Changes

I talked about who I am and what I believe, now I want to talk about what we are doing at Justice. Our Government’s legislative record is nothing short of transformative.

We 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.

We 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 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 thelist 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 reinstated the Court Challenges Program that had been cancelled by the previous government.

Judicial Appointments

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 are Indigenous, 22 are members of visible minority communities, 12 self-identified as LGBTQ2S and three self-identified as with disabilities.

We are also committing significant new judicial resources to assist Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador stand up expanded Unified Family Courts. The UFC positions, in tandem with our Family Law reforms in C-78, are tangible evidence of our Government’s commitment to improving the experience of those who find themselves in our family law system.

All of these appointments underline our Government’s commitment to re-shape the bench to better reflect Canada as it is today.

Reconciliation

I want to touch on the issue of reconciliation.

Our Government is committed to fundamentally transforming its relationship with Indigenous Peoples.

Last week we took another important step in that journey. On Thursday, my colleague Seamus O’Regan, the 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 all jurisdictions and regions of the country, while aiming to reduce what can only be considered as a 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 cannot understate the importance of this.

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.

I am confident that the work that remains, and what has already been accomplished, will have a profound impact on all of Canada.

You can all be an important part of this change. Some of you have already begun to play meaningful roles and make worthwhile contribute to the process of reconciliation through the excellent work of the Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge.

The Lodge is a great example of partnerships between Indigenous communities and academic institutions, and demonstrates what can be achieved by better coordinating research efforts and community engagement.

The program is a direct response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, and speaks to the importance of better developing and using Indigenous laws, while promoting a broader understanding of them.

You should all be very proud to be part of an Institution that is making such positive contributions to achieving reconciliation. 

Legal Careers

When I was sitting where you are, listening to lectures in law school, I didn’t imagine I would ever become a Member of Parliament, let alone the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.

I knew I loved the law and that it was incredible to study at McGill in a bilingual and bijuridicial environment.

Throughout my training, my teaching and my career, how I understood, interpreted and practiced law changed. And it changed often.

This will hold true for you as well. While you’re diving into historical laws and cases, you’re going to be shaped by the rapid pace of change in society.

Your thinking and your work will be influenced by what the public currently demands: transparency and improved access to justice. A criminal justice system that is compassionate and fair. Efficient and innovative ways to resolve disputes. And upholding the values and rights protected in our Charter.

Conclusion

In closing, I want to leave one more thought with the students here in the room.

I spoke earlier about the values I was raised with and the values I brought to my time as a professor.

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.

The exact way you choose to give back is up to you. I know there are any number of ways that the inspiration and talent in this room could be used to make the kind of positive change that we as Canadians all aspire to see.

Truly enjoy your time here at UAlberta Law – you will look back at it fondly as one of the best times of your life – as you follow your passions, make lifelong friends, challenge yourself, and grow to believe that your potential and the possibilities before you are unlimited.

Thank you. Merci. I’ll now welcome your questions.


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