Pat Carney is a former Conservative MP, cabinet minister and Senator
Canadians cherish the rule of law. We write those laws ourselves, or amend the ones we inherit. That’s what lawmakers do – the MPs and senators, MLAs and councillors whom we elect to govern our lives.
That’s democracy. Government of the people, by the people, for the people, as Abraham Lincoln famously said. And when the laws appear to be ignored, Canadians get angry, as in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Laws must be clear to be accepted by Canadians. That is why inserting a vague clause in the bulky 2018 Liberal budget to change the Criminal Code to address “corporate integrity” but which, in this case, would actually give the Montreal company a plea to avoid criminal prosecution, has offended so many Canadians.
Sometimes one wrong word in a law can lead to generations of unintended misery and unfairness for some Canadians. That’s what happened when, as a new MP in the 1980s, I joined 15 other women MPs who voted across party lines to amend the Indian Act to help equalize the rights of Indigenous men and women.
Under the existing law at the time, non-Indigenous women who married status Indian men assumed Indian status, but Indigenous women who married “off reserve” lost their status – and their benefits. So did their children. Those rights included access to medical care and education.
But we made a mistake in redrafting the law, limiting the restoration of rights to women and their “children.” As written, their grandchildren might not qualify unless their fathers were deemed status Indian, leading to the infamous “cut-off” rules in the application of the law and benefits to many Indigenous kids.
Years later, at a Senate committee hearing, an Indigenous woman who was a witness cried: ”We are Canadians. Yet we are the only women in the world who are sometimes forced to lie about who fathered our children.” Yes, laws are complicated.
A bill becomes law when it is voted on and passed. One vote can defeat a bill, killing the proposed law. That happened in 1991 when the Conservative government’s Bill C- 43 to limit women’s abortion rights was sent to the Senate to be voted on.
I found the bill so flawed it could not be enforced. It would limit legal abortions to the first three months of a woman’s pregnancy; I knew from my own experience sometimes a woman can’t be aware of her pregnancy that precisely.
Lawmakers shouldn’t pass bad laws. I could not support the bill.
The Red Chamber was thick with tension when the vote was taken. When the “nays” were called, I was the first Conservative senator to stand and vote against my government’s bill. My ears were ringing with threats of retaliation from then justice minister Kim Campbell and other government leaders. It would be so much easier to remain in my seat and abstain.
The Clerk reported the vote was tied, and the Speaker declared the bill dead. One vote could have passed the law. In fact, all votes determined the outcome. No bill to limit abortion has been passed to Parliament since then.
Sometimes proposed laws have unintended consequences. That happened with a bill to designate and preserve heritage lighthouses, Canada’s treasured houses of our maritime history and our coastal communities. It was a private member’s bill sponsored by me and the late Nova Scotia Senator Michael Forrestall and took years of effort by members of all parties in both Houses of Parliament to become law.
Intent on ensuring Canadians could access their lighthouses by sea, I included wharves in the list of facilities at lightstations to be preserved in the proposed legislation, along with light towers, houses and machine shops.
After it was introduced, I received a letter from Loyola Hearn, then minister of Fisheries and Oceans, a Newfoundlander and the only cabinet minister I know who wrote a ballad to support lightkeepers. The lyrics went: “Who will turn on the lights when the lightkeeper’s gone?”
Now, Pat, he warned. Your proposed bill as written would mandate the preservation of ancient, rotting, creosote-soaked pilings and wharves. Surely that is not what your committee intends?
Actually no, Loyola. So we changed the wording to include access, and made our intent to ensure public access in our preamble. Laws are lovely to write, but take care to ensure the meaning is correct.
If Canadians don’t like our laws, or our Supreme Court judges rule they are unconstitutional, we can change them. And the governments that proposed them in the first place.
That’s why Canada is glorious and free. Canadians want to keep it that way.