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Law, politics, and life at the crossroads

Cross Examined
|Written By Elizabeth Thompson
Law, politics, and life at the crossroads
Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters

Taking a break from runs to daycare and swimming lessons for his young son, former Conservative justice minister Peter MacKay was reflecting on law, politics, and life at the crossroads. “I want to be able to have more flexibility in my career and my private life, to be able to spend time with them — especially at this young age,” confided MacKay. “These are very formative years, as everyone knows. And so my preference is not to delve immediately back into the practice of law where I would be working commensurate hours as I was as minister of justice and not see them.”

MacKay took everyone by surprise last May when he announced that he would serve out his term as justice minister, but wouldn’t run again as MP for Central Nova in order to spend more time with his wife Nazanin Afshin-Jam, their son Kian, 2, and their daughter Valentia, who was born in September.

But while MacKay, 50, is only five years away from being able to collect an estimated $128,832 a year in pension after his 18 years as an MP, he says he has no intention of remaining idle.

MacKay’s experience in three ministerial portfolios — justice, foreign affairs, and defence — makes him an attractive candidate to law firms. While he was prohibited from even broaching the subject with prospective firms until after he formally finished as justice minister in October, it wasn’t long before his phone started to ring. In December, MacKay said he was in “advanced discussions” with a number of law firms with a “large national/international reach” but would not reveal any names.

However, he is a political animal and often mentioned as a possible future leader of the Conservative Party. Introducing former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney at Toronto’s conservative Albany Club in November and penning an op-ed in the National Post further fuelled speculation his departure from politics is a hiatus — not a retirement. When it comes to returning to politics, though, MacKay is coy. “I don’t have any future plans that would prohibit, exclude, or include politics. I’m focused right now on the next step, which is in the private sector.”

MacKay is also looking forward to being more active in causes he believes in, including some of those championed by his wife, an international human rights activist and president of Stop Child Executions.

When MacKay followed in the footsteps of his father, former Progressive Conservative solicitor general Elmer MacKay, and entered politics in 1997, he stepped straight out of the Nova Scotia Crown prosecutor’s office on to Parliament Hill. MacKay says it was his experience as a Crown and his first-hand experience with victims of crime that led him to the House of Commons. “That was a passion of mine that drew me to politics. I literally walked out of the Public Prosecution Service, as it is called in Nova Scotia, to pursue a career in politics because I saw shortcomings as a Crown attorney for victims in the system.”

MacKay made his mark during his years on the opposition benches. In 2003, he became leader of the Progressive Conservatives only to negotiate a merger a few months later with Stephen Harper’s Canadian Alliance. In 2006, when the merged party, led by Harper, came to power, MacKay was handed the coveted position of foreign affairs minister. A year later, he was moved to defence, just as Canada increased its involvement in the deadly Afghan mission. MacKay also had to stickhandle the government’s controversial plan to purchase costly F-35 fighter jets.

When MacKay was named justice minister in 2013, he says it was a return to his roots and “right in my wheelhouse. I loved my time there. It reinvigorated my love of the law. That was my chosen profession.

So I do look forward to getting back, to some degree, immersed in the law.”

He says his time as a cabinet minister and having the opportunity to work with top attorneys general around the world has also made him a better lawyer. “Every life experience is cumulative. You’re gaining perspective, you’re seeing things through others’ eyes. Being at the Department of Justice has very much impacted on how I would conduct myself as a lawyer. As did time at the Department of National Defence and exposure to the Judge Advocate General’s office and rules of engagement. Before that, at the Department of Foreign Affairs, and seeing how lawyers in other parts of the world play a role in the life of their countries.”

Of all the things he accomplished as justice minister, MacKay considers the new Victims Bill of Rights as his greatest achievement. “When we enacted that Victims Bill of Rights, it really was a landmark moment, an accomplishment  — I think — of our government, and it marks an evolution in the way the justice system, going forward, will treat victims when it comes to how we provide them with all of the support.”

While some have criticized the Conservative government’s law-and-order agenda, MacKay defends it, saying Canada’s justice system now offers more protection to victims, families of victims, witnesses, and the general public. “I unequivocally believe our justice system is more just as a result of the reforms we enacted, which should breed an increase in public confidence in time.”

He also defends his government’s imposition of mandatory minimum sentences, particularly in the case of crimes such as sexual abuse of children, and he warns against repealing them. “To talk about, for example, repealing all —not some, but all — mandatory minimum penalties, that to me is naïve in the extreme. We have had mandatory minimum penalties as long as we have had a Criminal Code,” he says.

“We have emphasized them and put some in place, particularly to protect child victims from predators and sexual offenders; to say that if you touch a child in a sexual way, you abuse them, you impact them for life, you’re going to jail. Every time.”

It would also be a mistake to repeal the government’s change to prostitution laws, which criminalizes the purchase rather than the sale of sex, he says. “It surprised people that we came forward with the solution that we did — to decriminalize the sale of sex but criminalize entirely the purchase of sex — putting all the emphasis on the perpetrators who are the johns and the pimps who exploit women in such a graphic way.” But he notes, the government consulted widely across the country before introducing legislation.

“That protection of communities and exploited persons act was in direct response to that [consultation] and aimed, without exception, at protecting both women and children but also communities and all of the risks that are inherent in prostitution, all of the dangers that flow, which are very much rooted in violence, sexual exploitation, drugs related, organized crime, all of those underlying causes.”

MacKay does have some regrets as justice minister such as not pushing harder to adopt tougher legislation on impaired driving, something he describes as the No. 1 cause of criminal death and injury in Canada. “We introduced it. We had it ready to go. We simply ran out of runway on a number of these [issues].”

Likewise, an overhaul of Canada’s family law system was drafted but never made it to the floor of the House of Commons. “We had it done. It was drafted. We had a bill ready to bring in; not that it was going to fix every ill in the family law system and you need intense co-operation, collaboration with provinces to do it, but that was an area of law [where] I wish I had been able to bring forward some substantive change because we had the law drafted.

“My hope is that my successor will pick up on that particular file.”


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