In disrespecting public officials, we disrespect ourselves

The trend of harassing and intimidating public officials has a harmful effect on the state of our polity and the quality of our public officials and representatives.

People will disagree with public officials and their decisions. In a democratic arrangement, there is an expectation that people will address their differences respectfully, and even in friendship. Frederick Haultain, the founder of Alberta and Saskatchewan, was notorious for his kind and respectful ways. Unlike our contemporary crop of leaders, he never insulted even his most vicious or slandering opponents.

Some will dismiss the concern saying that if one does not have the toughness to deal with belligerent opponents, one has no business being in politics. But robust debate and legitimate opposition have nothing to do with harassing, threatening and openly insulting officials and their families.

While attending Canada Day celebrations in Calgary, a mobbish group of protestors accosted Alberta Health Minister Tylor Shandro and his family. The group shouted intimidating insults and profanity at the minister, with his wife and children beside him. Premier Kenney has also spoken about receiving threats, some of which he says were directed at his elderly mother. Some media have given special attention to abuse heaped on women politicians.

That is the sort of behaviour that keeps good people from public service. Most people do not want to see their spouses, children or mothers be subject to abuse or intimidation of any sort. 

The recent development in which the president of a public law firm, a registered charity, hired a private investigator to tail a Manitoba judge to see if the judge violated COVID-19 health restrictions is similar. (Full disclosure: I was briefly employed by and served as board member of the public law firm in question).

On its face, one might defend it as harmless: What could be bad about secretly photographing a judge violating – like so many politicians – the health rules? What’s wrong with exposing hypocrisy?

A second of reflection would lead to the possibility of being discovered and to consider what the judge might experience. Who, being unskilfully followed, would not feel intimidated upon discovery? And then what? The defense that there was no attempt to intimidate the judge does not obscure the pursuit of an end justifying the means, lathered with a languid lack of imagination.

It is also different because the judge is not elected; because a good PI is not supposed to be seen; and because an organization mandated to uphold the protection of citizens’ rights is governed by higher standards of behaviour.

Those in the liberty movement learned from Milton Freedman that policy and actions must be evaluated by their outcomes and not exclusively by their intentions. The apparent result is that Justice Glenn Joyal felt intimidated when he discovered that he was being followed. In a country adhering to the rule of law traditions, it’s unlawful to intimidate members of the judiciary.

The crucial distinction is that the appearance of intimidation comes from a public law firm, whose president is a lawyer. And lawyers are officers of the Court: they are expected to behave with integrity so as not to bring into disrepute the administration of justice. Lawyers are supposed to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

The stated mission of the public law firm “is to defend the constitutional freedoms of Canadians through litigation and education.” It will be up to the organization’s board to determine whether following judges is a legal or educational strategy. Canada is not a banana republic. It will be up to donors to determine whether to continue their support or object to seeing their funds directed to hiring unskilled investigators to follow a judge around.

In fairness, checking on whether a random selection of public officials is conforming to the rules that they make or apply would be legitimate. But targeting the presiding judge under whom one has a case pending in court would be appallingly bad judgement for any individual or lawyer. For a public law firm designed to be a guardian against constitutional abuses, it is somewhat off the scale.  

In the end, insulting, intimidating, or threatening public officials is an unhealthy trend in a liberal democracy. Let’s not ignore that those being intimidated, and their loved ones, suffer from it. But as they represent us, public authority and the fabric of the community is also damaged. It erodes the faith potential officials have in the benevolence of community members, corrodes friendships, and results in poorer politics for us all. 

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