The Dean’s Talks: A vision for the Supreme Court

In this video, the Chief Justice sits down with Dean Marie-Eve Sylvestre to describe his vision for the Court. English closed captions available.

M-E: Good morning, Mr. Chief Justice.

RW: Good morning Dean Sylvestre.

M-E: It’s a pleasure to welcome you, always a pleasure to see you again here at the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa.

RW: It’s always a small pleasure when I come back here.

M-E: You’re a bit at home here.

RW: Absolutely, absolutely.

M-E: We had the impression as Chief Justice that you had a vision of the Court that was close to the people. Did that present particular challenges for the Supreme Court?

M-E: We had the impression as Chief Justice that you had a vision of the Court that was close to the people. Did that present particular challenges for the Supreme Court?

RW: Of course, the Supreme Court as such, when I became Chief Justice, I gave myself a mission that I wanted greater communication with the citizens but also with the key players, the professors, the justices of the court, the news media. And the pandemic, using technology, in a certain sense, is in line with new technology, in other words, social media. We have a Twitter account, we have a Facebook account, we have our cases in brief, in English cases in brief, which are available on our website. So, the electronic continued to work, our social media continued to work, even our annual review. As you know, since I began my mandate, we have an annual review of our activities, which is on our website. All of this is based on an objective I had set for myself to make the judicial community, the judges, the courts known to the public. With my years at the bar, I still pleaded for 25 years and I was involved a lot at the Quebec Bar, Bar of Montreal, creation of the CAIJ, several years at the Superior Court in civil, commercial and criminal law. I am convinced, I am convinced, and I hope I always will be, that we probably have one of the best legal and judicial systems in the world, having visited many countries as well, and we have overly well-trained judges. So I start from that premise. And in the last few years, I’ve realized that because of social media, which have changed the situation in the last 25-30 years, information or knowledge about the judicial system, about the courts, about judges, about law professors too, we can include them too, is not enough and has changed because, obviously, the traditional media have shrunk, take up less space. And I came to the conclusion that the information was not necessarily accessible to everyone and we must, we must inform people about our judicial system, we must maintain the credibility of people in the judicial system because when it stops, if it ever stops, it’s the beginning of the end, it’s anarchy. It depends on very few things, and the best way to maintain that is to inform people, to make known who we are, because we have nothing to hide. On the contrary, we have everything to gain by making ourselves known. So, it is with this philosophy that I approached my mandate as Chief Justice, to make our decisions-cases in brief, annual review, make the judges known, conferences, communicate with people, which obviously explained our trip to Winnipeg last year, which was a great first. I was thinking, why don’t we get out of Ottawa and go to different provinces, let people who can’t come to Ottawa to attend a hearing know what a hearing before the judges looks like, how they do their job? And then people when they get it and then they see how we do our job, I’m sure they’re going to maintain their confidence in the legal system. So, this effort to communicate, in English it seems to be reaching out to the public, which also includes the news media, professors, judges, etc., and I think that this is the way to maintain the credibility of the system in an environment and in an era where people are cynical quickly and we don’t have to go very far in the world to realize that in the last few years, terrible things have happened. The exercise of the rule of law has been hijacked. We have contaminated the ambient air in the judicial field by attacking judges, by attacking the rule of law, democracy, and that is very dangerous. So we have to protect ourselves against that by talking about it and then making the effort.

M-E: But you were actually saying that the Canadian judiciary may be, well, the Canadian judicial system may be one of the best in the world or certainly has an extraordinary reach. Do you see that you as Chief Justice of Canada and the Canadian judiciary as a whole has a leadership role to play on the international stage?

RW: I think so. More and more, apart from that. Compared to 10, 15 or 20 years ago, precisely because of the advantages I was talking about earlier, the unique characteristics. That doesn’t mean that everything is fine, and then the worst mistake we can make is to say, sit on our laurels and then say everything is fine, we’ll just keep going. No, no, no, no, no. We always have to maintain but also improve, find other ways, if we can find them, to improve the system. But you also have to recognize all the assets you have and then the good points as well. So I think that the fact that the judicial system first of all, the principle of judicial independence is part of our DNA. It’s very difficult to find the point in time when we developed that idea. I think it’s part of our habits and customs. But it’s a concept that has a lot of consequences in society for everybody and we have to protect this concept every day because it can be insidious sometimes. A comment from a public authority, a legislation that can undermine judicial independence and then it can be the beginning of the end. We don’t know where it can stop afterwards. So it’s a slope that can be slippery. What does that mean? It means always being on the lookout, always talking about it, always protecting it, always supporting it, and then denouncing any situation that could undermine judicial independence. That’s one of our great strengths around the world. I’ve lectured, I’ve been to conferences in Europe, among others, on judicial independence, and listen, following my conference, there are judges from other countries, from many other countries, who have come to me and said, “You are so lucky. What advice can you give me? “These people are under pressure. They are often totalitarian regimes or on the verge of becoming totalitarian, and the first gesture of a tyrannical or totalitarian regime is what? Attacking the judiciary, the lawyers, and the news media. So, it’s important to promote this, and people abroad are looking more and more to Canada as an inspiration. And that’s our responsibility. That’s why I’m doing it within the framework of the international association of French-language constitutional courts. It is our responsibility as judges to promote it and to give the good news abroad, not to tell them what to do but to inspire them in a very diplomatic way so that they can get examples of procedures and ways of doing things, to come back home and try to promote judicial independence. But we have judicial independence, but we have the training too. You know the NJI, the National Judicial Institute, which is great, it’s an extraordinary professional organization that provides training for our judges here in Canada but also abroad. We have projects abroad, which you know well, and I’m very proud of that. It’s great. One of the only organizations like that in the world. Bijural, bilingual, very professional. So people abroad need that. We’re going to start by meeting our own needs in Canada and we can export our knowledge and expertise as an inspiration and not necessarily to tell them what to do.

M-E: Then in return, I imagine that these exchanges with the world, particularly within the Francophonie but also elsewhere, can also serve as inspiration for Canadian courts, in terms of practices?

R W: Absolutely. I come back to what I told you a little earlier: ignorance is the source of a lot of prejudice. I believe that fundamentally. So, the more information we have, the less prejudice we’re going to develop. And I can tell you that we’ve taken tips and information from other courses abroad that have been very useful for the country. I often give the example of the United Kingdom, in particular the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, which has been at the forefront of communication with the public. People don’t know this, but they were the first to go out and meet the citizens, to sit outside of London. It’s been pointed out that it wasn’t to follow their example that I did it, but it’s in the spirit of the times to have done it as well. So, there are ideas from outside that we can import as well, ways of doing things, if only to compare ourselves. So, openness, getting information, there are just benefits that you can get from that.

M-E: What is your assessment of these activities? You’ve been Chief Justice for three years now, more or less. I can tell you that, from the outside, you can sense this vision, these reaching out activities, as you say, communication with the public. What assessment do you make internally of these efforts to democratize, to reach out to people?

R W: It requires… First of all, it requires a lot of effort. If only to tell you, to visit a city outside of Ottawa, to sit, it takes a year and a half, two years to prepare. So, I’ll tell you right away that we’ve already set our next trip to Quebec City for the fall of 2022, and we’re already working on it. So, it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, but my observation is that it’s worth it. The reactions we are receiving from citizens, groups, lobbies, and professional associations are overwhelmingly positive. I think it is making its way, but we must not give up. Then we won’t let go. I think it is in the interest of all citizens, in the interest of a healthy democracy, which will continue to be under pressure for the next few years. That’s for sure. So it’s up to us to hold down the fort. And then when I say to us, it’s the faculty, the judiciary, the lawyers, the media, the bar associations, etc., that have to hold the fort. But I think that… I’m very optimistic. Very optimistic. Some might say naive. I like to say optimistic as much as I do.

Upon his appointment as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Right Honourable Richard Wagner gave himself a mission: improve communication with the people of Canada. The Chief Justice stands firm in his belief that Canada’s justice system is among the very best in the world. But as sources of information and misinformation multiply, our system’s representatives must, now more than ever, strive to make sure that the right information is accessible to everyone.

In this video, the Chief Justice sits down with Dean Marie-Eve Sylvestre to describe his vision for the Court. The best way to maintain the credibility of our justice system, he explains, is for the Court to open itself up to Canadians – to shed light upon its judges, the way they work, and what goes into the decisions they reach. Both Canadians and the Court itself stand to gain immensely from this spirit of openness. But Justice Wagner also cautions that Canada cannot rest on its laurels. As other countries look to our example, so too must Canada seek new perspectives to identify where we can improve and where we can find new ways of thinking. A vision like this requires a great deal of effort, but, as the Chief Justice explains, its benefits are innumerable.

References and Useful Links
About our Guest

Stay informed of our latest news and publications