The QP Clip: What Peter MacKay said about Robert Mainville

The exchange you can’t miss from this afternoon’s Question Period
Journalists watch a T.V. as the Speaker of the House of Commons Peter Miliken tallies votes in the the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Tuesday, May 10, 2005 the Conservative party and Bloc Quebecois are pushing for a non-confidence vote. (CP Photo/Jonathan Hayward)

Justice Minister Peter MacKay may have put his foot in his own mouth a couple of times during Question Period as he attempted to laud a judge’s credentials.

On Friday, the government announced it had appointed Justice Robert Mainville, a federal court judge, to the Quebec Court of Appeal. Immediately, speculated followed that the government could be planning to appoint Mainville to the Supreme Court—his move to the Quebec court a potential attempt to work around the Supreme Court Act’s statute of qualifications that scuttled the appointment of fellow federal court judge Marc Nadon.

This afternoon, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair accused the government of improperly appointing Mainville to the appeals court. The constitution dictates that appointees must be members of the Quebec bar. Mainville was a member of that province’s bar for decades, but gave it up when he was appointed to the Federal Court in June 2009. Mulcair cried afoul, as did Toronto lawyer Rocco Galati—who filed a court challenge of the appointment.

When MacKay responded to Mulcair, he said Mainville’s “wealth of legal knowledge will be welcome at the Supreme Court and of significant benefit to the Quebec Court of Appeal.” That answer had Twitter talking about MacKay’s use of the word supreme. Did he slip, verbally, and confirm rumours that the government only appointed Mainville to the appeals court so they could elevate him to a Supreme Court justice later this year?

Liberal MP Sean Casey followed up, asking that very question. MacKay retorted that he had trouble following Casey’s “verbal gymnastics” and confirmed that he used the word “supreme” because Quebec’s Superior Court is analogous to a supreme court in that province. But who asked about the Superior Court? Mainville was appointed to the Quebec Court of Appeal. And even if the Superior Court were under the microscope, how can it be a supreme court when its rulings are subject to the whims of the province’s appeals court?

I emailed Emmett Macfarlane, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo and Maclean’s contributor on matters of Canada’s justice system, to confirm a few things about MacKay’s comments. “He may have misspoken and did a poor job recovering,” he wrote, adding that the Canadian court hierarchy “is complicated.” British Columbia’s Supreme Court, he said, is equivalent to Ontario’s Superior Court. But there’s no doubt Quebec’s appeal court is the highest in the province.

MacKay’s fumbles may be simple mistakes, miscues in the heat of argument. But he sure didn’t do much to clarify his government’s intentions.

—with files from Aaron Wherry