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We Need A Government That Takes Atlantic Canada Seriously

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On Oct. 19, 2015, 39 per cent of Canadians who voted, voted Liberal, electing Justin Trudeau and the Liberals to government. In a matter of weeks they will have been in office a full year. Many remain concerned with the odd priorities of the current government: I have yet to meet a Canadian who has raised electoral reform or legalization of pot as their top priorities. Nor has the massive deficit spending or the repeal of sound economic policy such as pension reform and First Nations financial transparency received a ringing endorsement. Governing is more than the undoing of previous policy and an endless string of photo-ops or selfies. Yet setting its own agenda is the government's prerogative, and time will tell.

An area in urgent need of attention, however, is the continuing mishandling of judicial appointments and the government's astonishing neglect of Atlantic Canada, where I am proud to be from.

In almost a year, the government has appointed just over a dozen judges to fill the 44 (and growing) vacancies. It says it is working on creating a new, more accountable system. Of course, there is always room for improvement. There is no harm in seeking a better model. But claims of greater transparency won't matter if the process doesn't result in new judges.

Certainly, no Canadian would find it acceptable to be told that their region of the country, for the first time in history, would have no representation on the Supreme Court.

Even the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada is calling for the appointment of judges from the existing model, drawing from a list vetted by a non-partisan panel to fill the void. This process, used for almost 30 years, resulted in what the prime minister himself has described as a judiciary respected and admired around the world. So why change it?

It seems the government has launched a PR effort to create something that will look like a fix for something that may not even be broken. There is a cost to this. Judicial vacancies must be filled in a timely fashion. The failure to do so now has senior judges in many courts, Justice Ministry officials and constitutional experts concerned that courts may not be able to meet their constitutional obligation to give trial dates within a reasonable time. A recent Supreme Court decision underscores how these delays have dire consequences. The inevitable result of these vacancies is less access to justice and more criminals walking free, potentially endangering the public.

This national failure was compounded when Trudeau and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced that the vacancy created by the imminent retirement of Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell may not be filled by a person from Atlantic Canada. Certainly, no Canadian would find it acceptable to be told that their region of the country, for the first time in history, would have no representation on the Supreme Court. One could only imagine the outrage in Ontario, Quebec or the West if this were to happen. Firstly, it defies all constitutional convention. It is also disrespectful and an insult to Atlantic Canadians to suggest that suddenly, of our entire legal population, none are qualified to sit on the top court.

supreme court of canada
The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. Photo by Getty Images.

It's also a funny way to treat a region that started the "red wave" that gave the government its majority. The Liberals hold all 32 federal seats and all four provincial governments in Atlantic Canada. One would think some gratitude might result. Yet like the whittling away of the shipbuilding contracts in Nova Scotia and the decision to make an Ontarian the minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the latest slight over a Supreme Court seat has been accepted with barely a whisper.

Some Liberal premiers have offered passive comments in support of an Atlantic Canadian on the top court. There have been tame murmurings from the Canadian Bar Association. But no one has called out the prime minister for what this is -- spit in our eye.

It would appear the government is committed to the importance of diversity by appointing persons who are ethnically diverse and bilingual. This is a laudable goal. When I was in government, we were proud to appoint in our region judges of Acadian, Métis and Asian descent. There were many others in other parts of Canada, all highly capable jurists. But there should also be emphasis on regional diversity, which has been historically important, given the rich cultural fabric the provinces brought into Confederation and the traditions that are still visible in the day-to-day lives of Atlantic Canadians.

The inclusion in the Supreme Court of Canada of a jurist drawn from these traditions and experiences helps preserve national cohesion. It ensures that the court will benefit from deep knowledge of the unique economic, social, legal and historical aspects of life in a part of the country that helped found the Canada we know. It's the ultimate irony -- a whole region seems set to be denied representation in the name of "greater diversity."

We are being taken for granted and ignored as a friendly backwater.

As a former federal minister, I can appreciate the need for fluency in both official languages, yet that does not mean that Canadians who are not proficient in both official languages are unsuited for office or the judiciary. Modern technology is sufficient to allow judges and others to do their work while acquiring proficiency in these languages. I have no doubt that many Canadians could point to some of the best judges and even politicians in our history who were not fluent in both French and English, including current members of the Supreme Court. To automatically disqualify all Canadians from those offices based simply on how many languages they speak is to deny Canadians the opportunity of have the most qualified and capable people considered for those positions.

The ultimate goal remains, as it must, quality and legal excellence above all else.The Supreme Court is too important to have the government conduct a social science experiment.

There are, of course, a great many bilingual jurists in Atlantic Canada who could be expected to serve their country with distinction, if selected. With the Trudeau government's hammerlock on all political power in the region, one would think it would warrant enormous influence. Yet the opposite seems to be true. We are being taken for granted and ignored as a friendly backwater. It's time for Atlantic Canadians, whatever their partisan affiliation, to stand up and make themselves heard. It may take courage to say so, but photo-ops aren't enough. We need representation from a government that takes Atlantic Canada seriously.

A version of this op-ed was first published on National Post.

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