Why Canadian (Alberta) Justice Minister, Kaycee Madu, is in Trouble

By Ted McCoy
(Contribute to Globe and Mail)

Kaycee Madu is on leave from his position as Alberta’s Minister of Municipal Affairs, pending a probe into whether a call to Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee to discuss a traffic stop was an attempt to interfere with the administration of justice.

The scandal around Kaycee Madu’s actions as Alberta Justice Minister raises several issues about policing, race and access to justice in the province.

In March, Mr. Madu received a ticket for distracted driving. He later called Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee to discuss the traffic stop. Earlier this week, Premier Jason Kenney placed Mr. Madu on leave from his ministerial position, pending a probe into whether the call was an attempt to interfere with the administration of justice.

Mr. Madu released a statement in which he insisted that he was not driving while distracted. He gave two reasons for his decision to have a conversation with Chief McFee.

First, Mr. Madu said he wanted to ensure that he was not being illegally surveilled by Edmonton Police. (He had previously condemned Lethbridge Police for surveilling NDP MLA Shannon Phillips.)

Alberta’s Justice Minister Kaycee Madu phoned police chief over distracted driving ticket

Second, and more troubling, Mr. Madu said that he used the call with Chief McFee to raise concerns about the profiling of racial minorities. Mr. Madu is a Nigerian immigrant, and he is the first Black justice minister in Canada.

Both issues in Mr. Madu’s statement are intended to deflect from his transgression and put the Edmonton Police Service on the back foot. They invoke legitimate issues with policing in Alberta, only to cynically leverage them for personal advantage.

The issue of race and policing is the more volatile of the two. Policing across Canada, from municipal forces to the RCMP, has a long history of racial discrimination and unequal justice that continues today. Questions about racism in policing Black and Indigenous communities have been particularly pressing since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

As Justice Minister, Mr. Madu has not championed policies that might combat discrimination in policing or address the concerns of Black Lives Matter.

For example, in late 2020, in response to growing calls for policing reform, Alberta banned the practice of carding – where police can randomly ask members of the public for identification without cause. It is widely acknowledged that the practice targets racialized and minority communities.

But Mr. Madu’s critics charged that the legislative change was cosmetic at best. The practice of “street checks” has continued, meaning police can still gather the same information for a number of reasons, including because an officer believes suspicion of a future crime may exist. It is difficult to see the difference between the two practices.

Racial disparities in policing across Canada show up in multiple ways, but street checks provide a stark example. For instance, between 2008 and 2013, Black people in Toronto were more than three times as likely to experience street checks, compared with white people. In Vancouver, Black people accounted for 5 per cent of all street checks, despite making up less than 1 per cent of the population there. (Comparable statistics for Alberta cities are difficult to extrapolate from police data.)

Even if Mr. Madu believed he had been racially profiled, his intervention in his own case raises another issue connected to his time as Justice Minister: access to justice.

Mr. Madu claims that in his conversation with Chief McFee he made no request for the ticket to be rescinded. But in exercising his power, authority and privilege as Justice Minister, Mr. Madu was making an implicit request for access to justice that is unavailable to regular citizens.

People in Alberta have very limited recourse to make official complaints about police conduct. All but the most serious criminal complaints about police officers are investigated and resolved by self-governing bodies within police services.

Mr. Madu is responsible for working to further curtail access to justice for Albertans who find themselves in traffic disputes similar to the one he endured.

Under the guise of streamlining the court system in Alberta, in late 2020 Mr. Madu introduced Bill 21, “The Provincial Administrative Penalties Act,” which eliminates Alberta Traffic Courts, effective next month. Unable to challenge traffic violations, Albertans will now pay up to $150 each to take their cases to arbitration, where it will be possible for fines to be cancelled or upheld, but not reduced.

While the change under Bill 21 appears to be in the service of efficiency, it is a substantial blow to access to justice for Albertans. It also reduces the accountability of police services in the province, which will no longer be called to appear in court when violations are challenged.

Under this new system, had Mr. Madu wanted to contest his ticket, his options would have been drastically limited. In effect, there will no longer be any opportunity to contest the substance of a traffic violation – only the form of its outcome. There is some hypocrisy at play in the fact that Mr. Madu saw no problem with bypassing even the minimal due process he would deny to other Albertans.

Mr. Madu may ultimately lose his cabinet position for political interference in the administration of justice. His deeper transgression is in exercising his power for personal advantage.

● Ted McCoy is an associate professor of Law and Society at the University of Calgary.

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