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The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, as photographed on June 12, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The federal government has sent “a harmful message to women” by adding a prominent male lawyer to a legal team that, until now, has been led by a woman in a major case on the federal carbon tax to be heard by the Supreme Court next month, a group of feminist academics and lawyers says.

The group of 30 characterizes the addition of lawyer Guy Pratte as a demotion for Sharlene Telles-Langdon, who has overseen the government’s case in three provinces’ courts of appeal.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Attorney General has decided, at the eleventh hour, to demote this highly competent woman,” the group says in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Attorney-General David Lametti. The group includes former University of Manitoba law dean Lorna Turnbull, Colleen Sheppard of McGill University and Jennifer Koshan of the University of Calgary, plus 14 academics from the University of Ottawa.

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The decision to “bring in a male lawyer … to make all or most of the oral submissions that Ms. Telles-Langdon is fully qualified and prepared to make is disrespectful and insulting to her … . The decision sends a harmful message to women. It says that even if you do excellent, hard work – even at considerable personal sacrifice – that is not enough. Where is the government’s oft-stated commitment to gender equality?”

The letter does not cite a source for saying that Ms. Telles-Langdon will be largely excluded from making oral arguments. Ms. Telles-Langdon works for the Justice Department; Mr. Pratte is a partner in a national law firm, BLG.

The case, to be heard in late September, goes to the heart of Canada’s fight against climate change. It is about whether the country’s federal system allows Ottawa to put a price on carbon emissions, or whether the provinces must be left to undertake their own measures.

Three provinces led by conservative premiers asked their highest courts to rule on whether the Liberal government’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, which puts a price on carbon emissions, exceeded federal authority. A four-person federal team led by Telles-Langdon won 4-1 at the Ontario Court of Appeal in June, 2019, and three-person teams led by her won 3-2 at the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal in May, 2019, and lost 4-1 at the Alberta Court of Appeal in February of this year.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment and referred The Globe and Mail to the Attorney-General, Mr. Lametti.

Rachel Rappaport, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lametti, described Mr. Pratte as “complementary counsel.” The Attorney-General informed the Supreme Court by letter on Aug. 14 that Mr. Pratte would be joining its legal team as “additional counsel.”

Mr. Pratte declined to say whether he is lead counsel, and referred The Globe to Mr. Lametti’s office. Ms. Telles-Langdon also declined to say, or to provide a comment on the letter, when contacted by The Globe.

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Ms. Rappaport stressed Mr. Pratte’s ability to argue cases in both of Canada’s official languages. Ms. Telles-Langdon has argued 12 cases before the Supreme Court, but has not argued any case in French. Mr. Pratte has argued 19 cases at the Supreme Court.

“It is our responsibility as a government to put forward the strongest argument possible,” Ms. Rappaport said in an e-mail. “Ms. Telles-Langdon and the Department’s legal team are highly experienced counsel who have been instrumental in the Government of Canada’s success in the cases before Courts of Appeal in Ontario and Saskatchewan. Our Government determined that the addition of external legal counsel to this existing litigation team would offer complementary strengths to the team as they prepare to present arguments in both official languages and on a national platform at the Supreme Court. We anticipate that both Ms. Telles-Langdon and the newly engaged counsel will present oral arguments to the court.”

Mr. Pratte, whose late father, Yves, was a Supreme Court judge from 1977 to 1979, has been called to the bar of Ontario and Quebec. His high-profile cases include representing the Law Society of Ontario against British Columbia’s Trinity Western University in a gay-rights matter in 2018. Ms. Telles-Langdon has represented the federal government in cases involving Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was locked up in a U.S. prison for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Ms. Rappaport said it is not uncommon to hire external lawyers for various reasons, and Mr. Lametti was involved in the decision to do so. However, he recused himself from the choice of a lawyer to avoid a potential conflict of interest with one of the individuals on the list of candidates presented by departmental officials, after a discussion with the federal Ethics Commissioner, she said. Mr. Pratte was not that individual, she added.

Eugene Meehan, an Ottawa lawyer who specializes in the Supreme Court, and who is not a signatory to the letter, said the government had added “strong artillery for a significant battle” in Mr. Pratte.

“It’s likely the government is more focused on winning the case, rather than making a feminist statement,” he said in an interview.

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Ms. Turnbull, still a professor at the University of Manitoba, described the issue with Mr. Pratte and the federal government as one of systemic discrimination.

“When women are routinely passed over, overlooked, that’s what systemic discrimination is, when it happens over and over and over,” she said in an interview.

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