Manitoba PCs accuse NDP MLA of representing criminals in his employment as defence attorney

On a day when it continued to come under fire for its handling of a sex assault program, Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government fired back at a member of the Opposition for his ongoing work as a defence lawyer while serving as an MLA.

Government responds to question period criticism by targeting ads for Mark Wasyliw's legal firm

Head and shoulders shot of a man in a blue suit.
NDP MLA Mark Wasyliw came under scrutiny on Wednesday for his continued work as a criminal defence lawyer and for ads directed at people accused of sexual assault and impaired driving. (Thomas Asselin/Radio-Canada)

An Opposition MLA's continued employment as a criminal defence lawyer came under fire in the Manitoba Legislature, as the governing Progressive Conservatives repeatedly brought it up before, during and after question period.

In a Wednesday news release, the Manitoba PC caucus said it was "disappointed" to learn Fort Garry NDP MLA Mark Wasyliw has continued his work as a criminal defence lawyer.

The caucus said Wasyliw is actively working to make Manitoba streets less safe through messages in his firm's online ads, such as: "Drinking and driving is NOT against the law" and "Facing Sexual Assault Charges in Winnipeg? We Can Help!"

Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, wasn't surprised by the tone of the rhetoric, which comes less than seven months before the next provincial election.

"As we get further into the session and closer to the election, the content and tone of debates will become more hyper-partisan, nastier and more personal," he wrote in an email to CBC News.

A website advertising for legal services for sexual assault charges is shown.
In response to the NDP's queries about the SANE program during Wednesday's question period, the Tories repeatedly brought up Wasyliw's law firm's website, which offers legal services for charges involving impaired driving and sexual assault. (Wasyliw Wiebe website)

Crime is an effective hot-button issue the PCs can use to sway voters to their side, said Thomas, especially after a recent series of random, violent attacks and other notorious crimes in Manitoba.

"The content and tone of the news release is meant to inflict maximum political damage on Mr. Wasyliw and his party," said Thomas.

The rhetoric continued during question period, when NDP Leader Wab Kinew asked Premier Heather Stefanson to acknowledge her government's mismanagement of the sexual assault nurse examiner program, also known as SANE, after the resignation of several casual nurses.

"The government is failing to provide a basic service that anyone in Manitoba would expect them to deliver: ensuring sexual assault victims have access to health care and justice," Kinew said, noting staffing gaps in the program could put criminal cases at risk.

"Our government will always stand up for survivors of sexual violence, unlike members opposite," Families Minister Rochelle Squires responded.

"Unlike the leader of the Official Opposition, whose own attorney — the member of Fort Garry — makes a living representing rapists and perpetrators and pledges to beat them of their criminal charges related to sexual violence."

A man in a grey suit with his black hair pulled back stands in a large hall.
Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew called for the premier to seek her health minister's resignation, after she blamed nurse resignations from the SANE program on Shared Health. (CBC)

The Opposition did not respond in the House to the criticism directed at Wasyliw, with Kinew instead calling on Stefanson — who was absent from Wednesday's session — to ask for Health Minister Audrey Gordon's resignation, after she blamed the nurse resignations on Shared Health.

"Will the premier let her blame these civil servants or will the premier do the right thing and ask her to resign?" Kinew asked.

"The person that should be resigning in this house is the member of Fort Garry," Squires fired back, accusing Wasyliw of stating on his law firm's website that he can explore legal loopholes involving the age of consent to get child sex offenders off the hook.

The Wasyliw Wiebe law firm website on Thursday morning included a page that says "Facing Sexual Assault Charges in Winnipeg? We Can Help!" at the top, and then outlines information about sexual assault law, including about the age of consent.

Gordon said she was concerned that the NDP did not address their statements about Wasyliw's advertisements.

"They don't want to reference any of the information we've tabled today because they obviously stand behind their member for Fort Garry, who happens to be — I'm told — the legal advisor for the leader of the Opposition," Gordon said.

Woman with blond hair and glasses stands at a microphone in the rotunda of the legislature.
Families Minister Rochelle Squires responded to criticism from the Opposition by accusing NDP MLA Mark Wasyliw of representing 'rapists and perpetrators.' (CBC)

The NDP told the CBC on Thursday morning that Wasyliw is not a legal advisor for the Opposition and that while his law firm represents defendants in sexual assault cases, he himself does not.

Opposition members continued to press provincial ministers on the SANE program for a majority of question period, while the Tories continued to bring up Wasyliw's legal practice.

While Thomas told CBC there is nothing prohibiting MLAs from pursuing outside employment, Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said after question period that Wasyliw shouldn't be doing it.

"I don't understand how anyone could have any side work at all as an MLA," he said.

"I know I am a leader, so I have extra work, but I am more than busy enough without even being able to imagine something like having a law practice on the side."

'Desperate distraction'

Wasyliw did not respond to the PCs' attacks during question period, and did not speak to the media afterwards.

When contacted by the CBC on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the NDP caucus described the accusations as "a desperate distraction from the fact sexual assault examiner nurses have resigned en masse because of PC mismanagement and chaos."

With files from the Canadian Press's Brittany Hobson