7 min

Vic Toews as judge raises concerns

Harper distances himself from former attack dog

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In Winnipeg, one of the most popular events of the summer is the Fringe Festival, when theatre fans fill the streets of the city’s Exchange District and line up to watch quirky and provocative plays.

The festival is unjuried and uncensored, so you never know what you’re going to get until the lights go down.

At last year’s festival, one of the best-reviewed plays was a one-man show called On Second Thought, written and performed by an adult video store clerk from Toronto named Paul Hutcheson. In true Fringe fashion, Hutcheson regaled the audience with stories of all the loveable drug addicts who inhabit his store in Parkdale, talked about growing up gay, and peppered his monologue with attacks against the religious right. At the end of the show, Hutcheson stripped down to a lizard-shaped G-string and shook his moneymaker to a Chantal Kreviazuk song.

I laughed throughout the performance, but I had trouble paying attention to the stage. That’s because I was also keeping tabs on the man sitting right in front of me. It was none other than Vic Toews, one of Stephen Harper’s most senior cabinet members, the politician once known as the Minister of Family Values because of his staunch social conservative attitudes and his memorable statement that same-sex marriage would lead to widespread, legalized polygamy. We wish!

When I first noticed Toews, I wondered if he accidentally wandered into the wrong theatre. But he and his companion seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as everyone else, slapping their knees and laughing at all the punchlines.

Toews’ presence at the Fringe Festival baffled me. In almost 15 years in politics, he’s built a reputation for being a tough-on-crime, traditional-values badass, standing up for his constituents in Manitoba’s Bible Belt against the perceived evils of the so-called liberal elites (including us gays). His stiff, unsmiling manner, along with his ubiquitous grey moustache, have helped make him a hero to the kind of people who think that Fringe Festivals are leading today’s permissive society straight to hell.

What on earth is Vic Toews doing here? I wondered. Unless, of course, he’s not the man he made himself out to be.

About six months before I spotted Toews at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, Stephen Harper shuffled him from the high-profile Justice portfolio into the influential but less noticeable job of Treasury Board President. It was Jan 2007, and the move puzzled cabinet-watchers. It was seen as a demotion, even though Conservatives seemed to like Toews as Justice Minister. Apart from some controversial views, he hadn’t done anything scandalous — at least not that most people knew about at the time.

In light of new revelations about his personal life, though, the move is now seen as Harper’s attempt to distance himself from Toews.

That’s because the Treasury Board President’s formerly squeaky-clean image as an upright, Christian family man is now in tatters. His wife of 32 years, and the mother of his adult children has filed for divorce. A few months ago, another woman gave birth to a baby — his.

Many people would say that’s nobody’s business, except for one thing: the way the Conservatives are allegedly trying to deal with the sticky situation of having an adulterer in their ranks.

Recently, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that Toews has been vetted for a vacancy on Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench, a position the prime minister gets to fill. Meanwhile, rumours are flying around the province that the provincial Tory MLA for the seat that Toews represents federally is being groomed to run in Toews’ place.

After Harper’s late-June cabinet shuffle, in which Toews kept his job at treasury, the Free Press quoted a Conservative party source as saying, “I think we’re looking more towards the end of August (for Toews’ possible judicial appointment and departure from cabinet). Now just was not the time.”

So, instead of being punished for his hypocrisy, it looks like the 55-year-old Toews might actually be rewarded. After all, a quarter-million-dollar salary as a judge (on top of his lucrative public sector pensions) would come in handy for someone who’s taking a trip through Divorce Court.

Politicians who pass laws based on unrealistic family values and then get caught breaking their own rules are not uncommon these days — at least not in the United States. In the last couple of years, we’ve had a US Senator caught with his pants down in a public washroom (Idaho’s Larry Craig), a US Senator and a governor caught on call girl customer lists (Louisiana’s David Vitter and New York’s Eliot Spitzer) and a US Congressman caught texting unwanted sex messages to teenaged pages (Florida’s Mark Foley).

In Canada, hypocritical Bible-thumping politicians seem to be less common. But the Toews case is a doozy — not so much because of his divorce and out-of-wedlock baby, but because he’s always taken a hard line against judicial appointments that look political. Back in the days of Paul Martin’s Liberal government, when then-Justice Minister Irwin Cotler named his chief-of-staff to the Federal Court, Toews said, “It’s just one more illustration of how who you know gets you on the bench.” Politics, he bemoaned, plays an important role in judicial appointments.

Well before Toews became Canada’s Minister of Justice in early 2006, he told a national anti-abortion conference, “Parliament is limited in its ability to act because of judicial activism.” He also did an interview with a U.S. group called Concerned Women for America (mission: “to protect traditional values that support the Biblical design of the family”) in which he said, “We have seen these radical liberal judges who have their own social agenda coming to the bench and forgetting that their responsibility is to interpret the law and not to make the law. And so we are very, very concerned about that.”

But what about the possibility of a Judge Toews? Should we be concerned about that?

In light of Toews’ rumoured judicial appointment, let’s take a look at his own social agenda and the types of positions he’s taken over the years.

As the Conservative Party’s point-man against same-sex marriage, Toews stood alongside all the rightwing Christian freaks who say that homo nuptials will cause the world to end. When equal marriage became legal, Toews still wouldn’t give up, saying that religious organizations would be forced to rent space to gay groups and that the government should use the notwithstanding clause to kill it. In 2004, when Parliament added the words “sexual orientation” to Canada’s hate crimes laws, he whipped his base into a frenzy by speculating that “homosexual activists” would call the Bible “hate literature” and sue hotels for distributing it.

After the Supreme Court defended a Vancouver man’s right to draw pornographic images of children for his own use, Toews blasted the judges. “The John Robin Sharpe decision is exactly an indication of how the artistic-merit defence has been exploited improperly by the court.” He said it was in the “public good” to oppose Sharpe’s private creations and, in turn, other Canadians who keep provocative diaries.

While in opposition, Toews also took a hard line against sex reassignment surgery for Canadians in jail. “What it appears to me is the government is trying to accommodate the interests of the prisoner and quite frankly, forgetting the interests of taxpayers,” he said.

The day after Toews was appointed Canada’s justice minister, he announced that teenagers couldn’t be trusted to make their own decisions about sex. He introduced a bill to raise the age of consent for vaginal sex from 14 to 16 (with a near-age exemption of five years), while maintaining the age of consent for anal sex at 18. That bill became law May 1, 2008.

But, given the near-age exemption, he appeared to be less concerned with teen sex than intergenerational sex. He was playing on stereotypes about power imbalance in age-disparate relationships — exactly the same sentiment he will now have to combat in the face of his own intergenerational shenanigans.

And, at the same time, Toews has said that kids should be held responsible for committing crimes at younger ages. In other words, reducing the age of responsibility from 12 to 10.

Besides all the obligatory “tough-on-crime” initiatives that come with being a Conservative — building more jails, mandating minimum sentences, proposing a “three-strikes” bill to make it easier for criminals to be locked up forever as “dangerous offenders” and hiring more cops to police a society with a plummeting crime rate — Toews also presided over the abolition of the Law Commission of Canada and the Court Challenges Program. Both of those government agencies were instrumental in, among other things, winning queer equality battles.

Sounds like a judicial activist to me.

But what are the chances that Toews’ nomination will be approved by Canada’s judicial advisory committees, which refer the names of prospective appointees to the prime minister? Toews may say he’s against “activist judges,” but he’s sure not against appointing Conservative activists to the bodies that pick them.

Before the Harper government was even a year old, the Globe and Mail reported, “The Conservative government has loaded the committees that determine who can become a judge, selecting a series of Tories, including former police officers, aides to ministers, riding association officials and defeated candidates.”

But just in case that wasn’t enough, Toews also announced a radical new change to the system: the appointment of cops to the committees. Since police officers are appointed by the justice minister, that means half the committee members are now federal appointees.

That last move was condemned by the kinds of judges who rarely make statements against government policy — from Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin on down. The outgoing president of the Ontario Superior Court Judges Association, Justice Colin McKinnon, said, “I think it was appropriate to come out swinging on this one, because the whole structure of an impartial nominating body [for federal judges] has been eviscerated.”

That wasn’t the only time that the legal community condemned Toews. They als laid into him when he announced that Parliament would start conducting hearings into the appointment of Supreme Court justices, just like Congress gets to do in the States. Toews said that voters should be able to see “activist judges” being publicly grilled by a panel of politicians. If Toews is appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench, though, he won’t have to face the same scrutiny.

You’d think that “tough-on-crime” Toews would at least have a record of obeying the law. But like the discrepancy between his personal life and public pronouncements, there’s a notable discrepancy there, too. In 1999, as Manitoba’s justice minister, Toews ran in a provincial election and was later charged with overspending.

He pled guilty and got a $500 fine. Normally, it might be seen as a somewhat minor offense, except in light of a new law that Toews had announced last March.

At the International Congress on Ethics in Gatineau, Quebec, Toews said that people who defraud the government of small amounts of money would now face penalties that are twice as harsh.

Keep in mind that elections are partially subsidized by taxpayers. That means Toews’ 1999 overspending cost us cash. Good thing for him that the rules he follows aren’t the same ones he preaches.

Of course, a Manitoba judicial appointment will mean running into Toews more often on the streets of Winnipeg. I look forward to seeing Toews again at this year’s Winnipeg Fringe Festival — pushing a baby stroller.