Politics

Convoy protests showed Supreme Court security should be 'a priority': chief justice

Canada's chief justice says the safety of the Supreme Court of Canada building needs to be a priority to avoid any potential security risks.

Chief Justice Richard Wagner held a wide-ranging news conference in Ottawa Thursday

An RCMP vehicle blocks off Wellington Street outside the Supreme Court of Canada during an ongoing protest against COVID-19 restrictions on Feb. 6. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Canada's chief justice says the safety of the Supreme Court of Canada building needs to be taken more seriously following this winter's convoy protest in downtown Ottawa.

Earlier this year, protesters rallying against COVID-19 restrictions parked trucks along Wellington Street — the location of both Parliament Hill and Canada's top court — for more than three weeks.

"Most recent events have shown that the priority was put on the Parliament buildings and not so much on the Supreme Court building," Chief Justice Richard Wagner told reporters during his annual news conference.

"And so I would hope that the Supreme Court building will be considered as a priority in terms of safety and security."

The Supreme Court falls outside of the parliamentary precinct and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Protective Service police force.

Multiple parliamentary committees are examining how police, security officials and the government responded to the winter protests. One of those committees is studying the boundaries of the parliamentary precinct.

That committee has heard witnesses say that jurisdictional lines between the Ottawa Police Service, the RCMP and the Parliamentary Protective Service made policing the protesters — who sometimes carted cans of fuel and fireworks into the protest zone — more difficult. Committee members also have heard calls to keep the street closed to vehicles.

Wagner's comments about security came just days after the U.S. House passed a bill extending security protection to Supreme Court justices' immediate family members.

The U.S. Supreme Court has been the subject of protests in reaction to an anticipated ruling curtailing abortion rights. A California man arrested last week near Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's home has been indicted on a charge of attempting to assassinate Kavanaugh.

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Richard Wagner listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Wagner said that while he believes Canada enjoys a less polarized top court, he still urged caution.

"We should not ignore some events that could create some problems for us as well. We should not undermine the efforts to increase the security," he said.

"The events in Ottawa last January have shown that it could be a problem. Let's hope that it will be referred to as an anecdote in our history, but maybe it won't. We never know. So I think that we should take this question very seriously."

During Thursday's news conference, Wagner also spoke of the importance of defending the court's judicial independence.

"We should continue our best efforts to support our democracy, to support judicial independence, to support the rule of law. Because that's the root of the confidence and the trust of the people," he said.

"When they lose faith in their institutions, trouble occurs. That's my fear."

Wagner says a draft decision leak unlikely in Canada

The protests in the U.S. follow the explosive leak of a draft majority opinion last month that would strike down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in the United States.

Wagner said he's confident such a leak wouldn't happen here, citing what he called the professionalism of the court's staff and clerks.

Protesters carry signs as they demonstrate near a federal court in Richmond, Va., on May 3. The countrywide protests came after Politico published a leaked draft opinion that suggested the U.S. Supreme Court could be poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide. (Steve Helber/The Associated Press)

"Does that mean it could never happen in the future? Nobody can say that but I would be very much surprised," he said.

"We don't have this polarization here in Canada on issues. Even on very sensitive issues, like in the Criminal Code for instance, medical aid to suicide for example, gay marriage — name it, we've had to deal with those very sensitive issues throughout the years. We never experienced that polarization and that's the main difference with what's happening in the U.S."

Wagner took a wide array of questions from reporters. He was asked how courts should hear cases now that most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.

The top justice said the legal system shouldn't return to pre-pandemic ways of doing things and promoted remote hearings.

"The technology levels the playing field for all.… This improves access to justice," he said.

"Truly, it does not matter if counsel is standing before them or appearing on screen. Strong, well-reasoned and persuasive arguments can be made from anywhere."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

With files from The Canadian Press

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