Former cabinet minister-turned-Manitoba judge broke conflict of interest rules, commissioner finds

Former Conservative cabinet minister Vic Toews broke conflict of interest rules by doing consulting work for two Manitoba First Nations after he left office, Canada’s ethics commissioner says in a report released today.

Former Harper government minister 'switched sides' and advised First Nations group

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has found former Conservative cabinet minister Vic Toews in violation of federal conflict of interest laws for working for two First Nations groups after leaving office. (CBC)

Former Conservative cabinet minister Vic Toews broke conflict of interest rules by doing consulting work for two Manitoba First Nations after he left office, Canada's ethics commissioner has found.

In a report released Friday, Mary Dawson said Toews, now a Manitoba judge, advised the same First Nations group he had previously battled in court when he was Treasury Board president in Stephen Harper's cabinet.

"In providing strategic advice on a proposed settlement agreement in relation to the Kapyong matter, and in participating in its drafting, Mr. Toews switched sides," Dawson's report said about the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner. "He acted for or on behalf of a party that was seeking relief against a decision in which he had been involved as a minister of the Crown." 

In 2007, Toews approved the transfer of the Kapyong Barracks land, a portion of Canadian Forces Base Winnipeg, to the Canada Lands Company.

That decision was challenged in court by several First Nations, including the Peguis First Nation, and Toews was named a respondent in the legal proceedings.

The Federal Court ruled in 2012 that the government had failed to adequately consult First Nations, and set aside the transfer.

The ruling was upheld by the Federal Court of Appeal in August 2015.

Strategic advice given

Dawson said Toews subsequently acted on behalf of the Peguis First Nation by providing strategic advice to their legal counsel, and by meeting with municipal and provincial officials on the Kapyong file.

The Conflict of Interest Act prohibits former public office holders, including ministers, from acting on behalf of any person or organization in connection with a case where the Crown had previously been a party to it, or the former minister had once been involved with it.

Dawson said he also breached the rules requiring a two-year cooling off period for providing consultancy services to the Norway House Cree Nation through a company owned by his wife.

During his last year in office, Toews had dealings with the Norway House Cree that constituted "direct and significant official dealings," according to Dawson.

There are no penalties or sanctions for violating ethics or conflict of interest rules.

Toews was appointed a judge on the Court of Queen's Bench in Manitoba in March 2014.

'Unfit' to sit as judge

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said the Canadian Judicial Council should review Toews's actions.

"In my opinion, given that he violated one of the fundamental democratic good government laws in Canada, [it should] rule that he is unfit to continue sitting as a judge," he said in an emailed statement. "My opinion is based on the integrity rules in the ethics code for federal judges, which require judges to act in ways that sustain and enhance public confidence in the judiciary."

Conacher said while it's good to see a rare ruling from the ethics commissioner finding someone in violation of the rules, it's still an example of how weak the federal government ethics enforcement system is because it has huge loopholes such as a lack of penalties for most violations.

Toews was unavailable for comment.