The health of our democracy: Pushing for greater diversity in public institutions

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. 

MES: There are many Canadian institutions that are currently concerned about issues of equitydiversity and inclusion. Several institutions – if I think of the university community – are deciding to undertake and implement action plans, to undertake measures to promote more equity and inclusion, so that those actions also reflect the diversity of the Canadian population. We know that the Minister of Justice had workshops this fall on the issue of diversity within the judiciary. As Chief Justice, how do you approach the issue of diversity within the Canadian judiciary 

RW: I see this issue as very much related to the health of our democracybecause our democracy does depend on our citizens respecting their institutions. This notion of diversity in our various institutions, obviouslyis related to the health of democracy. In other words, people must recognize themselves in their institutions in order to appreciate and respect them.   

There is nothing worse than an organization or institution that you don’t know. How can you appreciate something you don’t know? I think it’s normal and desirable that our institutions represent the diversity that exists in our society. This takes many forms, of course. There are institutions in which it is easier to ensure greater diversity than in others. There are institutions in which this diversity will take longer to achieve than in others. But the principle remains the same, and I think that we must aim for greater diversity in our institutions, and in particular in the judicial system, in the various courts across the country, including the Supreme Court of Canada. 

MES: What can be done to increase diversity within the legal profession first and then within the judiciary? 

RW: The first thing is to talk about itWe’re talking about it now, but we haven’t always talked about it. I think with talk comes action. It’s kind of like access to justice. We’ve been talking about it for a long time. I was president of the Montreal Bar in 2001-2002 and we were already talking about it. I like to talk more about actions of justice. I think that for diversitywhich we have also been talking about for a few yearswe should perhaps talk about actions of diversity to implement diversity. But the talk has to be continuous anyway. We have to keep the conversation goingwe have to keep the topic going to keep alerting those who can decide to make the right decision. And this is continuousit is ongoing. As judgeswe are not the ones who appoint, but we can encourage, we can incite, we can bring people to adopt that position. 

MES: You can count on the universities as partners. I can tell you that alreadyour student population has changed a lot in the last few years, and for the better. I think it’s also important for them to have role modelsboth in the legal profession, but also at the judicial level. As you know, there are certain populations, for example racialized populations, Aboriginal people, but also other socio-economically marginalized populations, that are over-represented in the criminal justice system in particular, and sometimes under-represented in other areas, so their legal needs are not necessarily met, for example in family matters, in civil matters and even in criminal matters at the representation levelWhat can the justice system do to better meet the needs of these communities and to support them? 

RW: The judicial system, by definition, if you’re talking about the courts, will respond when called uponWe are not public authorities that make the laws or the public approaches. But when we are called upon, for exampleour obligation is to resolve and to send the message through our judgmentsWe are not in the public square; it is not our dutyour obligation, or even our responsibility to be in the public square in place of the public authorities duly elected by the population. But we do have a role to play.   

We heard earlier about an over-represented community in penitentiaries, for example, for Aboriginal people. This is unacceptable. It is unacceptableWe just have to look at the numbers. There are Supreme Court rulings, one of which I wrote myselfthat clearly denounced the situation and urged public authorities to correct it. So, through our judgmentswe can do thatIt’s not right that certain groups are underrepresented in public office, but overrepresented in places like jails and prisons. It’s a long haul. There is no magic solution. Everyone has a responsibility. I think the courts are very awareWhen they see a situation that is legally untenable and when they are challengedthey react, I think. It is up to others to do the same. 

MES: Does the justice system also have to adaptWe know that across the country, in practically all provinces, there is the emergence of specialized courts, of trial judges who find different ways of delivering justice. How do you see these initiatives? Do you see this contributing?   

RW: It helps a lot. I know that in Montreal, for example, in the municipal court, there’s a whole area that deals with people who suffer in terms of mental healthThese people, obviouslycan’t be treated like any other offendersThey have needsThey are people who need care. There is this division that was set up by the chief justices of the municipal court in Montreal. It is also found in other provinces. So we realized that Canadian citizens – it could be Aboriginal or racialized communities, or people with special needs such as mental health – can be treated differentlyIt’s not the traditional way – with criminal prosecution and traditional sentencing, for example – that’s going to solve the problemThere’s an openness to that. I think judges work very well in that sensethey are open to exploring new methodsSometimes they are even more active than politicians. But of course, at the end of the daywe still depend on politics and government to implement publiclyfunded programs. 

“There is nothing worse than an organization or institution that you don’t know. How can you appreciate something you don’t know?” This is a question posed by the Right Honourable Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of Canada, as he speaks about the need for our institutions to represent the diversity that exists in our society. In this interview with Dean Marie-Eve Sylvestre, the Chief Justice addresses issues of equity, diversity and inclusion in Canadian institutions, covering specific topics like diversity in the legal profession and the over-representation of certain communities in the criminal justice system.

For the Chief Justice, the issue of diversity in public institutions is directly connected to the health of our democracy. Institutions like the judiciary can only be effective if people are able to recognize themselves in those institutions. While there is much work to do in the judicial system and in the various courts across the country, the Chief Justice suggests that the key to achieving greater diversity lies in first talking about it. He notes that simply talking about a lack of diversity in our institutions is something we haven’t always done. Now that the conversations has been started, the impetus is on those within the system to continue inciting and encouraging the push for greater diversity and to continue bringing attention to important issues like the overrepresentation of racialized communities in penitentiaries, and their underrepresentation in public office.

“There is no magic solution,” notes the Chief Justice, but improvements will come through a collective effort and an openness to addressing the problem. “Everyone has a responsibility.”

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