Court of Queen’s Bench Judge Vic Toews could face professional sanctions after a ruling Friday by the federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.
Commissioner Mary Dawson found Toews, a former federal Conservative cabinet minister, violated the Conflict of Interest Act after he received money from two Manitoba First Nations for consulting services shortly after leaving office in July 2013.
In one case, he received a retainer from Norway House Cree Nation, an organization he had dealt with while in cabinet, before a required two-year cooling-off period expired.
In a second case, he acted on behalf of Peguis First Nation in its quest to acquire Kapyong Barracks land — after representing the federal government on the issue years earlier. In the latter instance, the prohibition against acting as a consultant or "switching sides," is indefinite.
Toews, who for years was Manitoba’s senior federal cabinet minister, was appointed to the bench in 2014. Under the Conflict of Interest Act, he faces no penalty for Friday’s findings — other than the embarrassment from the publication of Dawson’s report.
However, he could soon be in hot water with a tribunal that oversees the conduct of senior judges.
Richard Leblanc, a governance and ethics professor at York University, said the conduct of judges is held to the highest standards.
"Your conduct as a judge has to be beyond reproach, and there’s nothing more serious than acting under a conflict of interest. So I think he’ll be sanctioned," Leblanc said from Toronto.
"It’s just terrible conduct, and it puts the administration of justice into disrepute. It also puts federal members of Parliament into disrepute when you see stories like this. It impugns the reputation both of Parliament and of the administration of justice."
Leblanc said Toews could be given a warning and, in a worst-case scenario, be asked to step down — although the latter measure is rare.
Toews could not be reached for comment Friday. A court spokeswoman said he was not at his office and was not expected to return until Wednesday.
Glenn Joyal, chief justice of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, did not respond to a request for comment.
In her 35-page report, Dawson said during his last year in office, Toews, acting as senior minister for Manitoba, met in August and September of 2012 with Norway House Cree Nation on a pair of issues. In October 2013, just a few months after leaving office, he provided consulting services to the First Nation through a company owned by his spouse.
Norway House Chief Ron Evans said Friday the community retained Toews to open doors in Ottawa and provide advice on some issues.
"We had a couple of meetings with him and we gave him a retainer and that was about the size of it," Evans said, adding in the end, the First Nation received "no real help" from the federal minister.
Evans said he wasn’t aware of the conflict of interest guidelines concerning former federal politicians at the time. "I certainly feel that’s something he (Toews) should have been aware of."
As president of the Treasury Board in 2007, Toews was responsible for the sale of the former Kapyong Barracks property in Winnipeg. The government’s decision to unload the land was challenged by several First Nations, including Peguis. The legal wrangling spanned the years from 2008 to 2015. Toews began advising Peguis on Kapyong, through the First Nation’s lawyer, Jeffrey Rath, in the fall of 2013, Dawson said in her report.
"He acted for or on behalf of a party that was seeking relief against a decision in which he had been involved as a minister of the Crown. I therefore found that Mr. Toews contravened subsection 34(1) of the Conflict of Interest Act," she wrote.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said while he was happy to see a rare finding of guilt emanating from the ethics commissioner, the Toews case highlights several problems that have plagued the office.
"It’s much too little and much too late — and an example of how weak the federal government ethics enforcement system is," he said Friday.
Even if Toews were still a cabinet minister, he would face no penalty from the review, Conacher lamented. There is no applicable fine under the law.
Conacher said Toews should lose at least part of his federal pension and any severance he was paid when he left office. "The law that he broke is second only to the criminal code in ensuring that politicians uphold the public interest and don’t breach the public’s trust."
If the actions of federal politicians and former politicians were more carefully monitored, Toews’ conflicts may have been discovered long ago, and he may never have been appointed to the bench, Conacher said. He said if no one else files a complaint against Toews to the Canadian Judicial Council, Democracy Watch will.
Meanwhile, Conacher said, given Dawson’s now-tenuous role as conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, Toews may even have grounds to challenge her ruling.
Rather than operate under a multi-year term as she used to, with no fear of termination except for just cause, Dawson has served under renewable six-month contracts at the pleasure of the Trudeau cabinet since last July.
That puts her in a "financial conflict of interest" that taints all of her rulings, Conacher said, noting Dawson recently "let the prime minister off the hook" for his fundraising activities.