Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Ottawa stripped Atlantic Canada of inclusion on Supreme Court with barely a peep

It's the sort of slight that Atlantic Canadians normally bristle at, but betting big on Liberals has meant little opposition to stripping the region of its seat on the Supreme Court of Canada.

Justin Trudeau's approach to Canada's top court shows the problem with putting all our chips on red

Nova Scotian Thomas Cromwell, seated far left, will retire this year and the federal government will have to replace the vacancy. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

It's the sort of slight that Atlantic Canadians normally bristle at.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would be OK with the country's top court having no judge coming from east of Quebec, and there was barely a peep out of provincial politicians in the region.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball has touted the benefits of having friends in Ottawa, but now that friendship has effectively ensured that the federal government can push through a policy that hurts Atlantic Canada without facing any real opposition.

After decades of Atlantic Canada being guaranteed one seat on the court, that has now been stripped away.

The closest to outrage that Andrew Parsons, the minister of justice and public safety in Newfoundland and Labrador, could muster is that he's "a bit disappointed."

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil would only say he "would have liked to have seen them ensure someone from Atlantic Canada would have remained a member of that court."

Just think if former prime minister Stephen Harper had pulled a similar move. Politicians in Atlantic Canada would have gone ballistic, especially because Trudeau is letting Quebec keep its guaranteed three seats that are enshrined by law. Atlantic Canada's one seat on the court was through constitutional convention, not legislation.

It has now been left to people like Wayne MacKay, a professor at Dalhousie university's law school, to speak up for Atlantic Canadian representation.

"I think it's a really big mistake to go against the long-standing convention of regional representation on the court, it's one of our most important policy-making institutions now, and to have no Atlantic voice in that institution would be contrary to the basic principles of Confederation," he told CBC News.

When it comes to the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, it's clear the Liberal government wants diversity on it, and it's willing to sacrifice regional diversity to get a bigger pool of applicants, writes CBC's Peter Cowan. (Albert Couillard/CBC)

During the last election, Atlantic Canada bet big on Big Red.

All 32 MPs are Liberal.

All four premiers are Liberal as well.

Who would have thought one of the loudest voices fighting this would be a Conservative MP representing the Toronto area? Oh, how times have changed.

We got lucky. Lisa Raitt is from Cape Breton.

Raitt said "we're getting the short end of the stick down in this part of the world." The response from Michel Samson, Nova Scotia's acting justice minister, was to downplay the slight by the current prime minister and revisit slights from the last one. He criticized the Conservatives' record in the region, and called Raitt's comments "a bit rich."

'What would be the reaction in Ontario?'

MacKay said things would be different if this didn't involve Atlantic Canada.

"One of the questions you have to ask in terms of how seriously the government is doing this, is what would be the reaction in Ontario if they had either no justices, or one, and Quebec had three," said MacKay.

"I can't imagine any federal government would do that, and if they wouldn't do that why would they eliminate Atlantic Canada, B.C., the West or anywhere else?"

It's clear the new government wants diversity on the court, and it's willing to sacrifice regional diversity to get a bigger pool of applicants.

Friendship with Ottawa shouldn't mean backing down when your friend starts playing favourites. If the friendship is strong, it should be able to withstand some vocal disagreement.


Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.