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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews seaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 3, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews seaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 3, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Question Period

MPs trade barbs on lawyers, judges and unilingual auditors Add to ...

An insulted former defence lawyer was asked to apologize to an insulted unilingual judge during Question Period Thursday, which was long on attacks and accusations but woefully lacking in answers.

Opposition House Leader Joe Comartin, a defence lawyer in his life before politics, started the ball rolling by going after Stephen Harper’s Conservatives over their tough-on-crime bills and the growing concern by premiers in Ontario and Quebec that they’ll have to foot the bill for new prisons or other costs associated with incarcerating more criminals.

But even before he got out his question, Mr. Comartin prefaced it with a reference to Wednesday’s Question Period in which Public Safety Minister Vic Toews had uttered sarcastic remarks about the legal profession.

“Yesterday, the Minister of Public Safety launched into a full frontal attack on defence lawyers in this country,” he said. “The irony is that the government’s misguided prison agenda will see provinces shelling out for more prisons, already overworked prosecutors and yes, for more defence lawyers.”

And then the zinger: “The only thing we will not see is more police officers on the street to prevent crime.”

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, however, attempted to turn the tables. Standing in for the Prime Minister, who is at the G20 meeting in Cannes, France, Mr. Kenney ignored the question and instead accused Mr. Comartin of launching his own “full frontal attack” – this time on Mr. Justice Marshall Rothstein of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Mr. Comartin was “fabricating commitments at a confidential hearing which were never made,” he charged. “That member has been repudiated by Mr. Justice Rothstein. Will he stand in his place, apologize and retract his irresponsible remarks?”

Mr. Comartin ignored that demand to apologize and a couple of others that followed.

The Immigration Minister was referring to a story in The Globe and Mail in which Judge Rothstein defended himself against accusations by Mr. Comartin and a colleague that he had reneged on a promise to learn French.

Mr. Comartin had made the suggestion when questioning two new Supreme Court appointees at a parliamentary committee. One of those new appointees, Michael Moldaver, cannot speak French but pledged to learn how.

But the NDP House Leader scoffed at the promise, saying he had heard that same commitment before. “That was five years ago, and Justice Rothstein is still unable to conduct any hearings in French.”

The transcript of the 2006 hearing does not support Mr. Comartin’s statements. And Mr. Comartin later said that he may have heard that Mr. Rothstein had made this commitment from a “third party” during confidential interviews conducted by a committee of MPs.

But on Thursday no side was willing to back down as the accusations and fur flew.

In a series of follow-up questions, NDP justice critic Jack Harris wondered out loud what names the Public Safety Minister was calling the five premiers “who are saying no” to the crime bill.

“Why will the out of touch government support provinces’ efforts to invest in crime prevention and more police officers?” asked Mr. Harris. “Why is it burdening them with billions more in costs for a failed approach?”

This time, Mr. Toews answered. And even he asked Mr. Comartin to apologize as he skirted the question.

But Judge Rothstein wasn’t the only one whose language skills were in question in the Commons. Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae wanted to know how the Conservatives could nominate a unilingual accountant for Auditor-General, a position that the government had advertised requiring the candidate be bilingual.

“It required a capacity in our two national languages in order to be able to hold the job,” said Mr. Rae, who earlier in the day had led his MPs out of the Commons to boycott a vote on a resolution to approve Michael Ferguson as the new Auditor-General.

“That was set out as a fundamental characteristic of the post. Conservatives then changed the rules at the end of the game,” he said. “Since when is it fair or reasonable to do that? It is not. It is whimsical, it is arbitrary, it is capricious, it is wrong, it is illegitimate, and the government should know it.”

Mr. Kenney defended the move, arguing the government does not believe that "Canadians who do not have perfect fluency in both languages should be excluded from serving their country."

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