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Trudeau Fellowship for Professor Kent Roach

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signs the Constitution (photo by LibraryArchives via Flickr)

Professor Kent Roach, Wilson-Prichard Chair in Law and Public Policy at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, has been awarded a Trudeau Foundation Fellowship in recognition of his outstanding scholarly and pro bono contributions in constitutional, human rights and anti-terrorism issues.

The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation is an independent, non-partisan charity established in 2001. Its fellowships, worth $225,000, are awarded annually to prominent researchers and thought leaders who make meaningful contributions to the world’s social issues in four key areas: human rights and dignity, responsible citizenship, Canada in the world and people and their natural environment.

A world-renowned legal expert, Roach has shared his expertise with countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, South Africa, Indonesia and Kenya, has acted as pro bono counsel to interveners in 13 groundbreaking Supreme Court of Canada cases, and has worked on notable commissions of inquiry: Ipperwash, Arar and Truth and Reconciliation. Roach was the research director for the Goudge Inquiry into Forensic Pathology and the Air India bombing inquiry. His current scholarly focus is on comparative constitutional remedies, counter-terrorism and wrongful convictions.    

“Professor Kent Roach has made outstanding contributions to some of the most critical scholarly and public policy debates of our time. As one of Canada’s most dedicated, thoughtful and creative academics, he has helped shape Canada’s place in the world with his abiding commitment to improving respect for human rights and dignity and responsible citizenship,” said Professor Mayo Moran, dean of the Faculty of Law. “We are so thrilled he has received one of country’s most important research awards.”

Professor Paul Young, U of T vice-president of research, said: “Congratulations to Professor Roach. I’m delighted that his scholarship is being recognized with such a prestigious honour. Trudeau Fellowships celebrate researchers who are engaging with the challenges of their times. Professor Roach’s work, which has examined everything from the Supreme Court to terrorism to our constitution, exemplifies this spirit of engagement as it helps us understand the history and institutions that shape our lives.”

Roach has authored 12 books, including the award-winning The 9/11 Effect: Comparative Counter-Terrorism, and numerous articles and chapters. His texts on criminal law and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are used broadly. He plans to use the Trudeau Fellowship to research comparative perspectives of miscarriages of justice, wrongful convictions and constitutional remedies.

Writer Lucianna Ciccocioppo spoke with Roach about his work.

What are the critical issues you’d like to explore with this award?
The two main projects that I’m going to be working on over the next couple of years are comparative perspectives on miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions, not only how to prevent them but also what the recognition of them means for criminal justice systems throughout the world. There are some parts that relate to the Foundation’s concern about the role that Canada can play in the world. For example, in 2001 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Canada would not extradite people to countries with the death penalty largely because of the possibility of wrongful convictions. I’m going to China in December to present papers on wrongful convictions and the death penalty so that’s one project.

The other project will be looking at what the courts can achieve through constitutional remedies. I’ve long had an interest in constitutional remedies in Canada and this gives me an opportunity to take a look at a number of other jurisdictions. I’ll be going to South Africa and Kenya and looking at some of the dilemmas that courts face in devising remedies for a variety of constitutional violations there. I will also look at remedies in New Zealand and the UK.

How does this award help you to engage with other people around the world?
It’s a generous and fairly open-ended award that allows me to travel and to meet other legal experts. The Foundation wants scholars to be actively engaged in the issues of the day. So, I will continue to do some work with The Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools. I expect that I’ll continue to do work in the national security area as well. This award will give me the freedom to pursue a variety of projects in a fairly intense way.

Why is the world interested in what a Canadian scholar has to say on these issues?
That’s a good question. Over the span of my career, I’ve seen a devaluation of Canada’s international intellectual currency. In matters relating to national security, people have not seen Canada as an example to be followed, except perhaps in admitting our mistakes, as in the Maher Arar case. On the other hand, the Canadian Charter has been very influential in places such as South Africa and Kenya. People in these countries are extremely interested in the Canadian experience. That’s why I think awards like these are necessary because I don’t think that Canada can rest on its laurels. 

Canadians must listen and learn from others. It may be part of the Canadian DNA to immerse ourselves in a culture that is obviously similar to ours, but a little bit different. When I’m abroad, I find that by being critical of things that Canada has done can actually raise awareness about those issues in other countries. When I was in Egypt under Mubarak’s rule, I was very critical of the Canadian courts even contemplating the idea of deportation to torture. So part of my message was criticism of Canada—but part of my message was criticism of human rights policy in Egypt.

With the influence of the Charter on other countries, we also have to be receptive to what other countries are doing. If we don’t cite their judgments, they may very well say to us: “This isn’t relevant to us.” I think it’s important to illustrate our expertise but also to show that Canadians are willing to consider contextual differences between the Canadian situation and the situation in Kenya, for example.

How do you move from the academy to the so-called real world? How do you make this happen?
As I think with most things in life, there’s no grand plan. I’ve really been fortunate over my career to have been asked to work on a number of commissions of inquiry: Morin, Ipperwash, Arar, Driskell, Air India, Goudge and now the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And I made time for them because I thought it was important work. The other factor has been that I’ve always done a certain amount of pro bono litigation, particularly with the Faculty of Law’s David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights, which makes it easier to do that. It helps also, as my family would complain, you just can’t say no.

The Trudeau Foundation is fairly unique because of the value it places on academics who move back and forth from the theoretical to the practical world. Trudeau Fellows make up the smallest part of the organization. The biggest part are obviously the Trudeau Scholars and that’s great because you have some of the best graduate students in the world and in Canada with whom you can engage. The other part consists of Trudeau Mentors, people with leadership positions in public policy, business and elsewhere. And the Trudeau Foundation brings these three groups together because it values this type of interaction.

What made you decide to become a law scholar instead of a law practitioner?
I’ve always been interested in ideas. And I’ve always liked teaching. When I was a law student at U of T, I made my way through school by being a teaching assistant and I enjoyed that. I’ve definitely been drawn at times to the idea of practicing full time but I like teaching, I like the interaction with students and I like the freedom to reinvent yourself from time to time. For example, I always had some interest in national security but it was really after 9/11, and after the conference the Faculty of Law held, that I really spent the decade after 9/11 immersed in national security issues, academically and on the research advisory committee of the Arar Commission. I was also the director of research for the Air India Commission. The beauty of academic life is that you do have the freedom to reinvent yourself if you want to.

How would you say our constitution stands up in the world as a comparative model?
I think quite well. I was in Tunisia earlier this year commenting on some of their constitutional drafts. The Canadian Constitution influences new democracies much more than the American Constitution does, as it has a certain baggage with it. It is a modern constitution. There are echoes of the Charter in the constitutions of Kenya, South Africa, and elsewhere to the extent that it’s based on some fairly basic principles of justice.

I think that it can be adapted to other contexts quite well and I look forward to testing this hypothesis in a more intense way over the next three years.

Lucianna Ciccocioppo is a writer with the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto.