I've only been doing this Zoom for over a year, and I still forget to unmute myself.
I want to say first of all, Madam Chair and members of the committee, how nice it is to be with you.
Madam Chair, you and I have met before. Congratulations on chairing the committee. It's a great honour. I'm sure you find it most challenging. It's one of the best committees to be sitting on, as I'm sure you all agree.
I don't want to get into huge details, but I'm happy to answer your questions. If I could, I'll give you a broad brush stroke approach.
A couple of years ago, during the Canada 150 celebrations, I was doing a panel at the Supreme Court of Canada, on the occasion of Canada 150, on the relationship between government and the courts. My co-panellist was the Honourable Bob Rae. Bob Rae and I have disagreed upon a number of subjects over the course of our years. He was premier of Ontario when I was prime minister, and I think I referred to him as behaving like he had a lemon in his mouth when he was meeting with me, but we've gotten on much better over the years.
One of the things he said at the panel on the Supreme Court was that he preferred the old “tap them on the shoulder” approach to appointing Supreme Court of Canada justices. It was this sort of mystique that you became a distinguished jurist in your province, you became distinguished at the bar, and then one day the Minister of Justice or a justice would come along and the Prime Minister would tap you on the shoulder and ask you to go to the Supreme Court of Canada.
However, as many of you will well understand, not all shoulders are equally tappable, and a lot of people who could make extraordinary contributions to the development of the law in our country are not necessarily on the radar screen of those who have traditionally done the tapping.
That was another subject on which I disagreed with the Honourable Bob Rae, but I think that for this process to work well, it has to work well at all of its stages. The first mandate that we have as the independent advisory board is to try to increase the number of candidates, and that is a bit harder than it sounds because, very often, people of distinction at the bar, jurists, are very Canadian, and they don't like to be seen to be putting themselves forward.
Right from the very first process—four processes ago—we worked very hard to try to encourage people who recognized colleagues as outstanding candidates to encourage those colleagues to apply. The system I developed was that when we got a recommendation.... We often would get a recommendation from a judge or from a member of the bar. One recommendation came from a student at the McGill law school. Anyone who is interested in the court can certainly communicate. What we do then is that I write a letter to the person who has been nominated and I say, “Your name has been forwarded to us as an outstanding candidate for the vacancy on the Supreme Court of Canada. Please review these materials and, if it interests you, we warmly encourage you to apply.” What this means is that many people who are otherwise a bit shy about seeming to put themselves forward can then say, “Well, I was asked to apply,” and certainly they were.
That is one of the challenges, but also, we have a very long list of organizations of lawyers and jurists across the country that we contact every time there's a vacancy. We ask them to circulate to their own members and to identify members in their own organizations who would make good candidates for the Supreme Court of Canada, because, again, there are very often groups of people who don't necessarily see themselves reflected in the current cast of characters and don't [Technical difficulty—Editor]. From the Prime Minister's perspective, the greater the diversity on the court, the greater it is for Canada. People who are from under-represented groups are certainly encouraged to consider themselves and to apply.
That is our purpose: to try to maximize the number of candidates. Even so, for many people—perhaps it's less the case in Ontario—going to the Supreme Court of Canada is a huge decision because, as you know, you have to relocate to the national capital region. It creates a much narrower life in the sense that you have to maintain your independence, so it's very important for the judges that they be able to create a community to provide support. Not all judges find it equally congenial when they go. It's a big personal sacrifice for many to uproot themselves, and many have reservations about it.
I think I mentioned the last time I spoke to you that there is now a considerable number—including a former chief justice—of retired Supreme Court of Canada justices. It would be very valuable if they were to have round table discussions across the country with members of the bar and the judiciary, to talk about what life is like on the court, both to encourage people to apply and to create realistic expectations, because it is a unique judicial appointment.
For those who come from Ontario and live not far from Ottawa or the national capital region, or for that matter, Montreal, it is perhaps less daunting. Certainly, when we were doing the western position, there were some candidates from British Columbia, for example, who were outstanding and bilingual and the works. We had the sense that they hoped we wouldn't nominate them, because it would be such a challenge for them.
Of course nowadays, professionals tend to have spouses who are also professionals, whether it's wives with husbands or husbands with wives. I think it is important to acknowledge what a commitment it is for someone to agree to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada.
One of the first things we do as a committee is meet with the Chief Justice to discuss all these things. We get his—and previously, her—reflections on what the court needs. but also on some of the aspects of the work of a Supreme Court of Canada Justice that could help us identify candidates who would make the best contributions.
The other thing I would say—and some of you will have heard me say this before—is that I am very gratified to be recognized as the chair of this committee, but it really is a committee of seven people. My role, as the chair, was to make sure that each member of the committee could make a contribution. As you know, we have four representatives of legal organizations, as the minister has mentioned, but there are always two members of the community who are not lawyers.
I cannot say enough about how excellent their contribution is. In all four of the procedures that I have been involved in, the non-lawyers were incredibly astute, very thoughtful and often raised very interesting points of view that enriched our discussions. I think there would be unanimous agreement on the formula of ensuring that it isn't just lawyers talking to lawyers, but that there are people who have not been involved in the legal profession, but who are very engaged as citizens, who are often quite astute at understanding what is at stake and how important it is.
In the operation of the committee, we start our work when all of the applications are in and the materials have been circulated. This year we had to work virtually, so the materials were circulated on our secure tablets. We didn't have the written versions that we used to have.
I will say that I missed the personal contact that we had when we worked in Ottawa: the opportunity to have meals together, to fatten ourselves up with cupcakes and to chat. We missed that, but the members were all incredibly supportive and responsive to trying to create a sense of community.
One of the things that's always been important to me is to avoid any suggestion of groupthink or pressure, or one person having more influence on another. Happily, they're all pretty independent people, so that's not so hard to do. I try to make sure they review the materials independently. Then we come together and do our first go-round of “yes”, “no” or “maybe”, to see where there is consensus and where there isn't.
The whole process is designed to try to make sure that seven people work hard to achieve the consensus necessary to create a short list, but also that each person does so feeling free to express fully their views and attitudes.
I'll just conclude, because I've had my warning sign—and I am happy to answer all of your questions—by saying that the candidates are really outstanding. Not only is it a hard job to be on the Supreme Court of Canada, but it's a bit of an effort to apply to be considered for the Supreme Court of Canada. There is a long and difficult questionnaire, and it requires all sorts of issues to be discussed and references to be assembled.
In the four times I have been involved in the process, it has always been very encouraging to see the quality of the people who apply. Some of them are maybe a bit junior but full of promise. There hasn't been a single application that we felt was delusional or whatever. On the contrary, and what we do is try to compare them to a peer group and to the outstanding members of the current court.
We really do have an enormous amount of talent, diverse talent, and interestingly enough, bilingual talent among the members of the legal profession in the country.
I'll stop here, because I think you may want to ask questions.
I just want to say that, from my perspective—and this is the fourth time I've spoken to you about it—I thought the process went well. I felt that it was inspiring but also challenging for the members, who worked very hard to try to achieve our goal of giving the Prime Minister a short list of three to five candidates that will keep him up at night trying to figure out which of these outstanding people to name to the court. I think this year we succeeded in doing that as well.
I'll end here, and I'd be happy to answer your questions.