Doug Downey: Who is Ontario’s Newest Attorney General

June 25, 2019

There were lots of reasons to fire Caroline Mulroney. So very, very many reasons. 

Mulroney, Ontario’s former attorney general, provided cover for Premier Doug Ford when he unnecessarily invoked the Charter’s notwithstanding clause in a petty fight over the size of Toronto’s city council. Even when Ford undermined the judicial process, asking why unelected judges should prevail over the will of the majority, Mulroney bobbled in agreement instead of acting as a champion for the rule of law and due process.

Most recently, Mulroney silently oversaw deep cuts to the legal aid system that will inevitably result in impoverished and marginalized Ontarians facing prosecution, conviction, and deportation without the assistance of a lawyer.

And Mulroney took no meaningful steps to reform and modernize Ontario’s overburdened court system. Under Mulroney, our courts were overworked, underfunded, and plagued with delays. They were a throwback to the 1990s when the fax machine was considered modern technology.

Mulroney may be remembered as one of the most unambitious and subservient Attorneys General in Ontario’s history. 

But Mulroney was not fired for her incompetence – she was fired for dutifully following orders.   Whether it was slashing access to justice, attacking the rule of law, or debasing herself in convenience store beer videos, Mulroney did what she was told. 

And that loyalty to the Ford machine bought Mulroney a first-class ticket for a seat under the bus.

So, hello Doug Downey, what kind of attorney general are you going to be?

Downey’s appointment as chief legal adviser to Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Ontario came as a bit of a surprise to most of the legal community. Downey, although seemingly held in decent regard by many in the legal profession, does have the opportunity to surpass the incredibly low bar set by his predecessor. 

And there may be some hope that Downey will be more than merely a Ford sock puppet.

In his remarks following the throne speech Downey began by acknowledging that much of Ontario is the traditional, and in many cases unceded, home to First Nations and Métis people. Downey then went on to praise former Ontario Premier Leslie Frost saying:

“The throne speech is a reflection of the plan for the people. It is a government for the people. The people wanted someone in their corner. They wanted politics done differently. And they wanted results. The throne speech confirmed that the plan they were promised and that they voted for is the result they will get.This is one of the reasons I entered public life: to deliver change.Leslie Frost was born in Orillia, in Simcoe county, and became Premier in 1949. But back when he was in the military, in 1920, he wrote a letter to his parents, and he was opining on what he should do next with his military career. He said, “There is always the question of duty. A person should take part in some public matters, either civil or military.” Well, I agree with Leslie Frost. Most of us in this Legislature are driven by a sense of duty to the public. I’m honoured to now be working in the Frost building.”

I am sure that Downey is well aware that Frost oversaw one of the great expansions in the role of provincial governments in recent history. Under Frost, Ontario substantially increased public investment in the schools, and public transportation. His government introduced public hospital insurance – a precursor to the modern OHIP system of healthcare. He even increased taxes, implementing the provincial sales tax, to fund the new progressive government spending. 

Ontario’s legal aid system was also born under Frost. His government passed the Law Society Amendment Act of 1951 that created the first plan to assist vulnerable and low-income Ontarian’s with legal expenses.

If Downey wants to truly honour Frost’s legacy he will advocate for increased public funding for health, education and justice. He will be an advocate for the rule of law. And he will work to make sure that all Ontarian’s have equal access to justice,

But this will mean he will need to speak out against Doug Ford’s legal Aid cuts and austerity measures – including cutting funds earmarked for lawyers to make of Gladue submissions made on behalf of indigenous people.

Downey needs to show that he can do more than make empty land acknowledgements.

He will need to call out political double speak and the intentional erosion in public confidence in our democratic institutions. 

Downey will need to do what Mulroney was incapable of doing – taking a principled stand against Ford’s worst instincts.

After all, all Downey needs to do is look in the rear-view mirror to see the tire marks over Ford’s last supplicant Attorney General. 

Downey has the opportunity to truly advocate for the people, all the people. But the choice is his. Ford sock puppet or Frost disciple. 

The two are mutually exclusive.

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