Don't expect new justice minister to deliver on progressive criminal justice reform

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In retrospect, Justin Trudeau’s surprise cabinet shuffle should not have come as a surprise. After all, it was obvious there would be some changes to Canada’s executive branch after Scott Brison announced he was resigning to spend more time with his family but definitely not to spare the government some very bad press during the election when he will likely face cross-examination by top-shelf lawyer Marie Henein over his role in the Vice-Admiral Mark Norman affair.

It was Jody Wilson-Raybould’s shuffle out of the justice portfolio all the way down the cabinet board to Veterans Affairs Canada that caused eyebrows to be raised. But maybe we should have seen that coming, too.

The cold, hard truth is that Wilson-Raybould’s time as Canada’s justice minister was a massive disappointment for anyone who hoped the Liberal government would actually follow through on its lofty justice promises.

Sure, in her bizarrely self-defensive exit letter, Wilson-Raybould claimed that there was “very little, if anything, in my mandate letter we have not done or is not well under way to completing.” Wilson-Raybould may be protesting a little too much on this one, because any honest reading of her mandate letter only highlights her failures.

It is true that under Wilson-Raybould the government responded to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision regarding physician-assisted death. She did not really have a choice but to move fast on that one. But there is a growing cry from Quebec and elsewhere that Wilson-Raybould’s law is too vague, doesn’t comply with the Supreme Court’s decision and is unconstitutional.

And Quebec is going to prove to be an important battleground province in the 2019 election.

Wilson-Raybould also sort of followed through on the Liberal promise to remove marijuana consumption and possession from the Criminal Code. After so many broken election promises, this could have been a pleasant surprise. But the final marijuana bill was a mess that did not actually remove marijuana from the Criminal Code, continued the criminalization of youth, discriminated against the poor and introduced new impaired driving laws full of unfairness and racism.

The rest of Wilson-Raybould’s mandate letter is a rogues gallery of bungled and unfulfilled commitments. The national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls has been a bureaucratic nightmare. Sentencing reforms, including the promised roll-back of minimum sentencing, never happened. There have been precious few measures to address the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on Indigenous, racialized, impoverished and marginalized communities. And there has not been any action on the promised modernization efforts to improve efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system — paper and the fax machine still rule the day in our courts.

To put it bluntly, Wilson-Raybould seemed to have been content to hold her tongue and sit on her hands — since 2015, only a handful of criminal justice bills have been passed into law.

So plodding were Wilson-Raybould and the government on criminal justice reforms that they were even beaten by the tortoise of the court system.

In 2013, the Conservative government introduced changes to the Criminal Code to make victim fine surcharges a mandatory part of sentencing. At the time, the Liberals vocally opposed the legislation. They were right to do so. Stephen Harper’s changes were overly punitive, limited judicial discretion and disproportionally hurt the poor. But in her three-and-a-half years as justice minister, Wilson-Raybould was not able to roll back those Harper era changes. She was so ineffective that court challenges to victim surcharge law moved from the lower courts to the appeal courts to the Supreme Court where the law was recently struck down — all before Wilson-Raybould could get any legislation passed.

But maybe none of this was her fault. Maybe Wilson-Raybould was not as incompetent of a minister as it would seem. Maybe she wanted to move forward with the promised reforms but was held back by the prime minister’s office. There was a growing feeling that Wilson-Raybould was becoming frustrated with centralized PMO controls and was beginning to veer off script.

So perhaps this explains Wilson-Raybould’s surprise demotion — especially when the other half of the story is who was chosen to replace her.

Wilson-Raybould’s replacement, David Lametti, seems to be the perfect election-year minister of justice. He clerked for Justice Peter Cory at the Supreme Court. He was a professor of law at McGill University. He represents an important Quebec riding. And he has been a loyal government soldier who has also been largely silent on criminal justice issues.

And this last qualification is the most important.

Over the next year, the government will not want a justice minister who will vocally advance progressive legislation that could be used as fodder for Conservative soft-on-crime attack ads. The prime minister will want a justice minister who can toe the party line, keep quiet and be amenable to centralized control.

Trudeau, I’m sure, would prefer a justice minister who will listen to the PMO when considering sticky political issues such as  signing off of the extradition of Meng Wanzhou.

Perhaps Trudeau was worried that Wilson-Raybould was not up to that job.

In the end, neither scenario reflects well on Wilson-Raybould’s tenure in justice. She either was a terrible legislator who abandoned the promises of progressive reforms or she was not able to stand up for her principles.

But none of this really matters because Wilson-Raybould did not deliver on the promise of progressive justice reform and there is no reason we should expect anything different from the new justice minister.