By Stephanie Taylor
THE CANADIAN PRESS
OTTAWA- Canada’s new justice minister plans to tell his staff and department to move “expeditiously” to address judicial vacancies, an issue that had dogged his predecessors and resulted in a reprimand from the country’s top judge.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau picked Toronto MP and former human rights and constitutional lawyer Arif Viranito replace David Lametti when he unveiled his new cabinet this week, in a shuffle meant to renew the Liberal benches after nearly eight years in government.
Virani, an Ismaili Muslim who came to Canada as a refugee from Uganda in 1972, is one of seven rookies entering cabinet.
But jumping straight into the dual role of justice minister and attorney general makes him the biggest mover of the bunch.
“The prime minister said to me, ‘I would like you to be the minister of justice,’ at which point I kind of yelled and screamed and cried at the same time,” he said in an interview Friday.
While the pair have exchanged a few text messages and voicemails, Virani said he plans to speak more with Lametti this weekend.
Taking on one the biggest files in government brings a host of challenges, but between briefings in the roughly 48 hours Virani has been in the job, he has also chance to enjoy some of the perks of a cabinet posting, like a new office: “Little bit fun to have my own washroom. I kind of like that.”
Trudeau said he assembled his new cabinet to respond to economic headwinds and housing affordability, but the changes come when more Canadians are worrying about crime, an issue that the Opposition Conservatives have seized on.
A Statistics Canada report from this week backed up some of that sentiment, concluding there was an uptick in violent crime last year. That signals a possible return to a trend that was interrupted by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought with it lockdowns and an overall drop in crime.
Another issue landing on Virani’s plate is a shortage of judges that has led to delays in court proceedings. As of July 1, there were 81 vacancies in federally appointed judicial positions across the country.
After being elected in the Toronto riding of Parkdale-High Park when the Liberals swept to power in 2015, Virani went on to serve as parliamentary secretary to both Lametti and his predecessor, Jody Wilson-Raybould.
The issue of judicial vacancies persisted under both, with Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner writing a personal warning to Trudeau earlier this year about the need to hurry up the appointment process.
So what does Virani plan to do differently?
“That’s where a fresh perspective and a fresh approach can assist,” he said.
Part of that means “giving marching orders” to people in the minister’s office and the Department of Justice, he said.
“We need to be doing things — not compromising on quality — but we need to be doing things expeditiously.”
Virani said that was one of the first briefings he received, and noted that one of the issues the government is dealing with is a lack of applicants.
“That’s a bit frustrating when we want to appoint judges, but also reflective of the diversity of Canada, which is important to me and important to the prime minister.”
Solving that means reaching out to South Asian, Black, Indigenous or otherwise diverse lawyers “and make sure people see themselves possibly as a judge,” said Virani.
He said part of the solution is ensuring that staff in his office and those in the Prime Minister’s Office are working together.
Virani suggested the government could apply some of the lessons it learned in mobilizing the bureaucracy to help resettle some
25,000 Syrian refugees between November 2015 and early 2016.
When Parliament resumes in September, he said his efforts will be dedicated to shepherding Bill C-48 through the House of Commons.
That’s the government legislation that seeks to make it more difficult for people accused of certain violent offences, such as those with a weapon like a gun or a knife, to access bail.
Lametti introduced the bill amid widespread calls from premiers and police chiefs earlier this year for the federal government to toughen its rules following a string high-profile violent crimes.
That included the death of Ontario Provincial Police Const. Greg Pierzchala, who was shot and killed last December. Police allege the man who killed him had been released on bail.
Since becoming Conservative leader last fall, Pierre Poilievre has turned his attention to prosecuting the Liberals’ record on crime, repeating slogans like “jail not bail,” and accusing Trudeau of adopting “catch-and-release” policies with violent offenders.
Allowing people who are awaiting trial access to bail will remain an important feature of the criminal justice system, Virani said, but the government heard from Canadians that “they were feeling that it was being granted in situations where it should not be granted, or where it should be harder to receive.”
He said he plans to reach out to Conservative MPs to discuss the bill, in hopes of smoothing obstacles to its passage.
However, Criminal Lawyers’ Association president Daniel Brown called the current slate of reforms “regressive” and said they are lending credence to the idea that bail is too easy to get, “when that’s simply not the case.”
To make matters worse, he said, data still shows there is a significant overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system _ another of the issues Trudeau’s government has tried to tackle.
“The political climate itself, and sort of the lead-up to an election, often leads to bad policies,” said Brown, a Toronto-based lawyer.
“(Virani is) going to be stuck working within the confines of what his party thinks is best to win the next election. And often what is good to win the elections is not usually good criminal justice policy.”
Canadian Bar Association vice-president John Stefaniuk said generally speaking, the association believes changes to bail must be evidence-driven and not anecdotal to ensure it follows principles upheld by the Supreme Court.
Virani dismissed any such criticism, saying the government listens to evidence and defended its reforms as targeting “a very finite set of offenders,” while its broader efforts to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous people or other visible minorities in the justice system have more to do with non-violent offences.
“The two don’t work at cross-purposes.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2023.