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Quebec Government tobacco snitches; Supreme Court cowardice in Ruffo review

Of snitches, spies and cowardly courts

By Beryl Wajsman

Saturday, May 20, 2006

"…a civilization begins to decay when its governors are occupied only with vices and voices they seek to demonize…"

~ Edward Gibbon

"Society's silence and inaction in the face of a system that does not work is nothing less than complicity in perpetuating the injustices it supposedly seeks to cure. Edward Gibbon once wrote that, "…a civilization begins to decay when its governors are occupied only with vices and voices they seek to demonize…" By that, or any other standard, Canada is rotting away.

What a cowardly, silly little people we have become. This has been a shameful week to be Canadian. Other than the Prime Minister's bold move to force a vote on our commitment to our Afghanistan mission that left the opposition looking like sniveling little nightcrawlers, Canadian civil society --in two instances in four days--retreated to its typical do-nothing, talking the talk and never walking the walk mode.

Two days ago, the Quebec government announced that in addition to the inspectors it would hire to enforce its new anti-smoking law, already the most inane in North America forbidding smoking even in open air terraces, it was going to hire "inspectors' aides" to covertly go into bars and restaurants to assure compliance. They won't have the right to hand out fines. They are only to act as snitches to the inspectors who then report to the bureaucrats at the provincial Office of Tobacco Policy. Another massive bureaucracy to control our personal habits.

Forget the very sketchy science behind the societal frenzy over smoking, no one argues that anyone should be forced to put up with the smell of cigarettes if they don't like it. But no government should have the right to prevent adults who do like smoking from congregating in smoking-only bars and restaurants. This law not only forbids that, but dictates conduct even at private affairs held in rented halls. All this at the same time that Quebec merrily collects billions in tobacco taxes.

But the most shocking part of this story was the deafening sound of silence from most citizens about the execution of this law. A bureaucrat from the above-mentioned Tobacco Police stated this week, in classic Orwellian state-speak, that the purpose of the government was to "denormalize" smoking. "Denormalize" behaviour? What's next? No over-eating? No dangerous sports? Other than leading constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, who is challenging the law, and the coalition supporting his clients Peter Sergakis and Voula Demopoulos, the famed "just society" of Canada was silent. And more than silent on the snitches.

Some commentators had the perversion of mind to say that there was nothing wrong with snitches and spies since the "precedent" had been set with the inspectors from the Office pour la langue Française that enforces Quebec's language laws. In other words much of our vaunted intelligentsia was ready to accept a wrong committed on the back of another wrong simply because society submitted to the first one. By that reasoning why bother investigating and overturning wrongful convictions like Truscott, Marshall, Morin, and Milgaard since "precedents" had been set with the first one. Insanity. Sheer insanity.

However, the cherry on the poisonous, and hypocritical, cake that Canadian civil society has baked came today. The Supreme Court whose members, including the Chief Justice, believe in an activist judiciary that can right constitutional and Charter wrongs, didn't have the guts to review the case of activist Quebec youth court Judge Andrée Ruffo who was thrown off the bench by a Quebec judicial panel for speaking out in public against the abuses suffered by children under Quebec's youth protection system.

Ruffo's has been a lone voice for two decades for some of the most vulnerable in our society. She shamed Ministers, fellow judges and the system itself. There was no intimation of misfeasance or malfeasance in the Quebec panel's decision. They simply didn't like her style. They wanted judges who were quiet. In short, they wanted to shut her up and protect their tawdry little legal world. And now they got the top court in the land to be complicit in their bodyguard of lies.

The scales of justice fell again and the sword of justice has been once more been blunted.

But in a society that runs between the raindrops, populated by citizens that dare not care, ruled by governors who can no longer tell right from wrong, this should no longer come as a surprise.

We live in a country that applauds McCarthyite witch-hunts that encourages innuendo, rumour and guilt by association in order to protect powerful vested interests, but we denounce those who speak truth to power and dare to challenge those same interests. As Judge Ruffo put it so well, "We have created codes and perverted our very language to shield a status quo that in so many cases does evil and brings harm to some of the most vulnerable among us."

Only one other judge in the history of Quebec has been ordered removed. That Judge was Richard Therrien, who had failed to disclose his past membership in the terrorist FLQ. I guess free speech is now as threatening to the state as fire bombs.

The Ruffo affair is as eloquent a testament to the need for radical judicial reform as there ever was. Canadians like to pretend to support an "activist" judiciary, but when we finally see an activist judge who walks the walk and not only talks the talk, she is silenced. Judicial activism cannot be narrowly defined as dry words on paper. Law, as Lord Acton wrote, must never be allowed to be used as a two-edged sword of craft and oppression. It must become the "…shield of the innocent and the staff of the honest…" Judges like Ruffo who lend their names to petitions; who speak out; who attempt to rouse the resolve of a feckless public are those very shields and staffs.

It's time to unclog the sclerotic arteries of justice after decades of judicial clubbiness and chumminess. We need to bring to an end law by dictat and fiat so far removed from the very citizens it judges. We need an elected judiciary accountable and responsible to the people, not just to its own judicial boards and political overseers.

And should anyone still maintain a fidelity to the idea of judicial "independence" in our system of appointed judges, let us remember that one of the great ironies in the Ruffo affair is that only the Quebec Minister of Justice can actually now remove her permanently from office. Yet how can any elected official remove her in good conscience when there have been so many cases of judicial interference by elected officials, even Ministers, with no reprimand whatsoever?

Society's silence and inaction in the face of a system that does not work is nothing less than complicity in perpetuating the injustices it supposedly seeks to cure. Edward Gibbon once wrote that, "…a civilization begins to decay when its governors are occupied only with vices and voices they seek to demonize…" By that, or any other standard, Canada is rotting away.