Chief justice calls convoy blockades ‘deplorable’
Chief Justice Richard Wagner said disinformation was partly to blame for the Freedom Convoy blockades this winter that had “deplorable” effects on the nation’s capital and “should never happen again.”
Wagner also revealed during a news conference Thursday that he’s repeatedly asked for security to be beefed up around the Supreme Court in Ottawa, particularly following the illegal blockades that occupied the streets around the building for weeks last January and February.
The chief justice repeated his warning that though he believes Canadians largely have confidence in institutions like the Supreme Court, that confidence is fragile and is undermined by disinformation and misinformation spread namely through social media.
“Disinformation, I believe, is part of the explanation behind what we lived through in Ottawa last winter. Disinformation leads people who are otherwise of good faith to lose confidence in their institutions and lead to regrettable behaviour,” Wagner said in his annual end of session news conference.
“We all have a responsibility to deliver good information,” he added, qualifying the impact of the Freedom Convoy’s blockades on many Ottawa businesses and individuals (particularly “the most vulnerable”) as “deplorable” and that it should “never happen again.”
The frank comments are likely to be closely scrutinized given that the top court might be called upon to hear cases related to the Freedom Convoy. Hundreds of criminal charges were laid against protesters who participated in the blockades on Parliament Hill and at critical border crossings to the United States last winter.
Unlike parliamentary buildings contained in what is called the “parliamentary precinct,” namely East, West and Centre block, the Supreme Court — just a few hundred metres west of those buildings — offers unhindered access to pedestrians and vehicles from the street.
There are no gates, no bollards, no concrete barriers and no Parliamentary Protective Services agents permanently posted in front of the building’s entrances like there are in front of West block, for example. Vehicles can also freely access the roads all around the building, whereas drivers must go through guarded checkpoints to access the parliamentary precinct.
“We know that since the terrorist attack a few years ago on Parliament Hill, authorities re-evaluated security measures for parliamentary buildings. But unfortunately, I have the impression that, to a certain extent, the Supreme Court building is a bit the poor cousin” in terms of security and protection, Wagner told reporters.
“I have requested multiple times that the Supreme Court building be part of the protected buildings, that it be added to the additional protection zone. I hope the recent events in January will bring authorities to consider the Supreme Court of Canada as an important building that must be protected,” he added, referring to the nearly month-long Freedom Convoy protests.
A Supreme Court spokeswoman Alison Crawford told National Post after the news conference that the chief justice did not want the building to become as heavily guarded or cut off as the parliamentary precinct.
But she would not specify what additional security measures the court had requested of Public Services and Procurement Canada, which oversees the government’s real estate. She did however point out that security had temporarily set up concrete barriers blocking access to the small roads surround the Supreme Court during the Freedom Convoy blockades.
“Most recent events show that priority was put on parliamentary buildings, but not on the Supreme Court building. I would hope the Supreme Court building would be considered a priority in terms of safety and security,” Wagner told reporters.
During his news conference, Wagner also expressed his growing concern toward the “unacceptable” underfunding of justice systems and courts throughout the country.
He said that lack of resources is increasingly hindering access to justice in Canada and governments urgently need to address the issue, otherwise it’s possible that we come to a point where proceedings are stayed because of delays (like under the Jordan decision).
“You have judicial assistants to judges who work for $30,000, $35,000 per year. Judges don’t have help; financial means and resources are limited. Judges aren’t able to do their job because they don’t have adequate resources,” Wagner insisted.
“We are not giving judges all the means they require to accomplish their tasks, and that concerns me. If that creates delays, and I know it has happened like in cases where there is a lack of clerks in court rooms, that is unacceptable and I hope public authorities will react quickly,” he added.
There is no one “magical solution” to fix the lack of court resources, but he listed increasing access to legal aid or supporting pro bono projects as possible outlets.
Wagner, who was named chief justice in 2017, says the COVID-19 pandemic had a transformative effect on how the country’s top court operates, forcing it to allow lawyers to appear virtually instead of needing to plead in person in Ottawa.
“Now, we actively encourage remote hearings,” he said, because it makes the court more accessible to all Canadians.
In the same vein, the court will be travelling to Quebec City in September for the first time in history to hear two appeals, another measure he said he pushed for to make the court more accessible to the average Canadian.