MONTREAL — The Quebec Bar is mulling disciplinary action against a prominent lawyer who argued before the country’s Supreme Court that Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler was part of a Jewish conspiracy to have his client deported.
Guy Bertrand, a lawyer in Quebec City, was representing a Rwandan political exile, Léon Mugesera, whom the Canadian government had been trying for 10 years to deport for his alleged incitement of Hutu extremism during the Rwandan genocide. In November 2004, Bertrand filed a brief with the court alleging that Cotler had colluded with the Canadian Jewish Congress to prevent an unbiased and impartial ruling in Mugesera’s case.
Last month, the Court not only upheld Mugesera’s deportation but also issued a rare condemnation of the lawyer’s tactics. The justices said Bertrand’s arguments “include antisemitic sentiment and views that most might have thought had disappeared from Canadian society, and even more so from legal debate in Canada.”
The Supreme Court’s rebuke seems to have left Bertrand feeling offended rather than chastened. “I was crucified in public,” he told a news conference. He added: “I am not going to hide the truth, because an ethnic group is powerful. There are people who have maneuvered to get Mr. Mugesera deported, and it appears that they are Jews. This has nothing to do with their ethnicity. It’s their behavior that I condemn.”
The Quebec Bar is expected to decide this month whether to hold disciplinary hearings on the matter, said its spokeswoman, Sylvie Berthiaume.
Casper Bloom, vice president of the executive of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Quebec Region, said he would like the Quebec Bar to suspend Bertrand “for a matter of months, more for the message it would send than for the damage” to his livelihood. Bloom, who is a former president of the Montreal Bar, said that Bertrand’s tactics “were an outrage to the Jewish community and to our profession at the same time.”
In the controversial brief, Bertrand accused Cotler of conspiring with the Canadian Jewish Congress to appoint Judge Rosalie Abella to the top court in August 2004. Bertrand contended that Cotler, a former president of the CJC, had supported the deportation as a private citizen and that Congress lobbied for it. The brief also alleged that Cotler has close ties with the judge’s husband, historian Irving Abella, also a past president of the CJC.
Bertrand stated in his brief that Cotler’s failure to recuse himself from the judicial appointment process “can only lead a well-informed observer to conclude that unfortunately when you are powerful, rich and influential like the Congress, for example, you can infiltrate the court through political and judicial lobbying.” The lawyer alleged that Cotler deliberately “worked behind [Mr. Mugesera’s] back to have him returned to Rwanda, all of this so that the minister… can use the court to serve his interests and those of his friends.”
Although Abella withdrew from the Mugesera appeal in September 2004, Bertrand contended that the “dice are loaded” against his client and that the Supreme Court could not be impartial in the case.
In its ruling last month, the court said that Bertrand’s motion to end proceedings against his client was “unprofessional and unacceptable,” and called it “scandalous” to allege that “influential members of the Jewish community manipulated the Canadian political system and the country’s highest court for the sole purpose of having Mugesera deported.”
The high court noted that when the federal government sought leave to appeal the Mugesera case, Cotler had not yet even been named justice minister. “The only abuse of process… lies at the feet of the respondent Mugesera and Mr. Bertrand.”
Bertrand is a well-known, albeit unpredictable, lawyer. Previously he won a reputation as a defender of freedom of speech. A former advocate of political independence for Quebec, he jumped ship and argued successfully before the Quebec Court of Appeal against Quebec’s right to secede from Canada.
While this change of heart made him something of a hero to those who want Quebec to remain within Canada, this positive perception has been damaged by his claims of a Jewish conspiracy against his client. The fact that this was believed to be the first time he engaged in antisemitic rhetoric led some observers to speculate that his comments may have been a lawyer’s tactic rather than an expression of his personal views.
“I can’t even fathom why he wouldn’t know what he was doing was unacceptable,” the CJC’s Bloom said. “Even if it were intended only as a tactic, he could not have been unaware of the reaction it would provoke.”
Cotler has declined to comment on the case.