Atlantic Canada being treated like a 'backwater' with Supreme Court snub: Lisa Raitt

A top Liberal politician in Nova Scotia calls Conservative MP Lisa Raitt criticism of the federal government's treatment of Atlantic Canada "a bit rich" given her role in the previous government led by Stephen Harper.

Top Liberal in Nova Scotia says Conservative MP's comments a 'bit rich' given Harper era

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt says the Liberal government's move to usurp tradition and open the selection process for a new Supreme Court justice to all Canadians is a slap in the face to Atlantic provinces. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A top Liberal politician in Nova Scotia says Conservative MP Lisa Raitt is "a bit rich" for criticizing Ottawa's handling of Atlantic Canada given her role in the previous Harper government, but he shares her concern that reforms to the Supreme Court selection process could leave the region without a spot on the top court.

Acting Nova Scotia Justice Minister Michel Samson's comments come after Raitt said the Prime Minister's Office is treating the Atlantic provinces like a "backwater" by failing to guarantee a seat for the region on the high court. She said the decision could be motivated by a feeling that Maritimers do not have the "scholastic aptitude" to fill such a top job.

Justice Thomas Cromwell, a Nova Scotian and the only justice hailing from the Atlantic provinces, will retire from the bench in September and the hunt is on to find his replacement.

"Justice Cromwell was one my professors at law school and I think he's been a great addition to the Supreme Court and a great voice for Atlantic Canada and that's what we want to see continued under this new system," Samson said in an interview with CBC Radio's The House.

He said it is a "concern" that Ottawa hasn't specifically stated that all regions of the country will continue to have representation on the highest court in the land. Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, a Liberal, has said he will seek assurances directly from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in time, Samson added.

Nova Scotia's Premier Stephen McNeil, a Liberal, said he wants Atlantic Canada representation to continue on the Supreme Court of Canada. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced reforms this week, in the wake of Cromwell's departure, and in doing so said there will be a national search to fill the vacant seat. A spokesperson for Trudeau affirmed there is no guarantee the seat will go to someone from Atlantic Canada regardless of a longstanding tradition that mandates a place for a jurist from the area on the high court.

"Ultimately, there will be an appointment, whether it's this appointment or the next, that will be an Atlantic Canadian," Wilson-Raybould said.

The region has never gone more than a year without a spot on the Supreme Court since its creation in 1875.

"When I hear Lisa Raitt's comments ... I find it a bit rich especially as a Cape Bretoner knowing what her government did to us during their time. We now have a prime minister that actually likes to speak to premiers," Samson said. "It's a new world order for us in Nova Scotia." 

The Harper government did little for the Maritimes, and dismantled a key economic development corporation, Enterprise Cape Breton, which hurt the economy in his part of the province, Samson said.

'They're a backwater place'

Raitt, a native of Whitney Pier, an impoverished neighbourhood in Sydney, N.S., said the Liberal government's move to usurp tradition and open the selection process up to all Canadians is a slap in the face.

"Once again we're getting the short end of the stick down in this part of the world and it just drives me around the bend. People assume we're not good enough — that we can't be bilingual, that we don't have visible minorities here — whatever that mix is they look for, 'It can't possibly be in Atlantic Canada, because, you know, they're a backwater place.' And I'm so tired of that whole label," she said in an interview with Wendy Bergfeldt, the host of CBC Radio's Mainstreet Cape Breton.

Raitt, who represents Milton, Ont., in the House of Commons and is currently visiting Cape Breton on summer vacation, has been considering a run for the federal Conservative leadership and is strongly leaning towards throwing her hat in the ring.

She said that there's an "arrogance" on the part of the prime minister, and his top advisers, with respect to her home region.

"I don't think the folks who are running the prime minister's shop in Ottawa think much of the Maritimes in terms of scholastic aptitude. That's what I would take from it. I think that's incorrect, and I resent the fact that I have to justify that there could be possibly one person in four provinces ... we have judges that would be appropriate, and indeed be leaders on the bench," she said.

But Trudeau's brain trust does include at least one prominent Atlantic Canadian, his principal adviser, Gerald Butts, who also hails from Cape Breton. Butts grew up the youngest of five children to a coal miner and a nurse in Glace Bay, a town of about 20,000. Hundreds of his tweets reveal an affinity for the place where he grew up.

Raitt said passing over the region sends a clear message to aspiring legal minds. She said as a young law student she looked up to the likes of Michael MacDonald, a fellow Cape Bretoner, who now sits as the chief justice of Nova Scotia's Court of Appeal.

"I was so proud of that [appointment]. I realized that even coming from the Pier, coming from Cape Breton, I too could have a great legal career. These things actually matter, it matters that you have someone from the Atlantic provinces on that bench."

MacDonald, an anglophone with relative fluency in French, has been touted by some in the region as a natural fit for Cromwell's seat.

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet Cape Breton