OTTAWA — Federal Liberals have thwarted an opposition attempt to find out who leaked information about a dispute between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould over who should be chief justice of Canada's top court.
The Liberals used their majority on the House of Commons justice committee Thursday to defeat a Conservative motion calling for the committee to investigate the leaks.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who introduced the motion, said the "shocking and unprecedented" leaks smeared respected judges and undermined the independence of the judiciary by publicizing what was supposed to be confidential information about the selection process for Supreme Court appointments.
But Liberals countered that the motion was entirely political, aimed at further dragging out the SNC-Lavalin affair, which has been plaguing the Trudeau government for more than two months.
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The committee should take Trudeau at his word that neither he nor his staffs had anything to do with the leaks, Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi said.
The Canadian Press and CTV reported last month that Wilson-Raybould recommended Glenn Joyal, chief justice of Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench, be appointed chief justice of Canada, heading the Supreme Court.
According to sources, Trudeau was concerned about her choice because he believed Joyal has a conservative, restrictive approach to interpreting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Trudeau ultimately named sitting Supreme Court Justice Richard Wagner to replace Beverley McLachlin, who retired as chief justice in December 2017. He also appointed Alberta judge Sheilah Martin to fill western Canada's seat on the bench (McLachlin was born and raised in Alberta and rose through the judicial ranks in British Columbia).
The leaks landed in the midst of a furor over Wilson-Raybould's contention that she was improperly pressured last fall to stop the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. It suggested Trudeau had reasons unrelated to the Montreal engineering giant to move Wilson-Raybould out of the prestigious justice portfolio to Veterans Affairs in a mid-January cabinet shuffle.
Watch: Trudeau ratchets up rhetoric over SNC-Lavalin affair
Wilson-Raybould believes the move was punishment for her refusal to halt the prosecution. She resigned from cabinet a month after the shuffle.
Another leak a day later to the Globe and Mail suggested Wilson-Raybould wanted to elevate Joyal to the Supreme Court to make way for an Indigenous judge to take his place at the head of the Manitoba court. It also said she believed Wagner was more conservative in his approach to the charter than Joyal.
"What we have as a result of this leak is an undermining of the integrity of the appointment process," Cooper told the committee, adding that Joyal, Wagner and Martin have all had a "cloud" put over them. "Quite frankly, this goes to the heart of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, which has been undermined as a result of this leak."
New Democrat MP Murray Rankin said he and Conservative MP Rob Nicholson are also under a cloud since, as their parties' justice critics at the time, they had access to all the confidential information about the finalists recommended by an independent panel for appointment to the top court.
Liberals take Rankin and Nicholson at their words that they didn't leak anything about the appointments, either, Ehsassi said.
He agreed the leaks were "regrettable" but said they were not unprecedented. He noted that information about the selection process was leaked in 2014, when the Conservative government of the day named Marc Nadon to the top court — an appointment that was later struck down by the Supreme Court because Nadon did not meet technical eligibility requirements. There was no investigation into that leak.