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Thursday, April 06, 2000

The day they tried to kill the court
Waste of money: critics
Luiza Chwialkowska
National Post

Barely four years after Parliament created the Supreme Court, MPs tried to kill it. On April 21, 1879, Joseph Keeler, a Conservative Member of Parliament from Ontario, introduced a bill to repeal the Supreme Court Act. His attempt was initially viewed as a joke, but the government of Sir John A. Macdonald soon found itself defending the existence of the institution from attacks from hostile bipartisan MPs.

The published debates of the House of Commons, preserved in the Library of Parliament, recount that "Mr. Keeler said he introduced this bill on the score of economy. He thought we were governed a great deal too much in Canada, and that we could do very well without this Supreme Court. He considered it was established, in the first place, without proper reasons. He did not believe that the country required or wished for any such court."

The MP thought the court "was throwing away $50,000 a year of the people's money," and was convinced that "The people of Canada had the same view, that this court was entirely unnecessary and useless.

"He believed we had better courts in each of our provinces, carrying more weight in their decisions than the Supreme Court, which had been established in Ottawa," the record states.

The prime minister, whose Conservative government had first sought to establish the court that was eventually created by the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie, leaped to the institution's defence.

He told the House that "The court was now established and was a recognized tribunal, and being so it must be sustained until it was proved decidedly that it was against the interests of the country that it should be continued."

Alexander Mackenzie defended his creation, stating: "The court was necessary for the government of the country, and if it were only for the settlement of the disputes on the Intercontinental Railway, and other similar disputes, making, as it did, an independent tribunal, before which the government and their contractors and claimants could appear, it had rendered enough service to justify its establishment."

Alfonse Desjardins, a Quebec Conservative, complained that "Four out of the six judges were chosen from other provinces without being previously obliged to study the civil laws of the province of Quebec ... [As a result,] public opinion in the province of Quebec was far from being disposed to accept the establishment of this tribunal, which had been prematurely forced upon the country."

On the other hand, a number of MPs were galled by the "disgraceful attack" on the institution. Lucius Seth Huntington, an outraged Quebec Liberal, said: "There should be some subject so sacred in this country that the prime minister, even for the purpose of pleasing his partisans, would not hear it unjustly denounced."

But the Conservative prime minister allowed the debate and mocked such reverence.

"[I] did not know that his hand would be withered if he laid it on the arc of the covenant of the Supreme Court," he said. "That institution had been created by Parliament and amended by Parliament. Parliament might declare it to be inefficient, but that would not be blasphemy."

The court "was of no more sacred quality than any other institution," and "the discussion could do no harm," he said.

Indeed, while several bills for the court's abolition and for curtailing its powers were introduced in the 1880s, the court survived.

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