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William Watson: U.S. court rulings not in Trudeau's jurisdiction

·4 min read

On Twitter last Friday Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante called the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion “an unacceptable step backwards.”

“Unacceptable” means “not able to be accepted.” It’s an adjective people often use for events they don’t like but are going to have to, well, accept. Someone should tell Mayor Plante that, as cosmopolitan as her city is, being its mayor does not get you a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, nor in the U.S. Congress nor even in a U.S. state legislature, where abortion law will now be made by democratically elected representatives of the people — as it is in this country, as it is in most of the democracies we typically compare ourselves with. 

Actually, our own current lack of an abortion law is a result of a tie vote in our unelected Senate in 1991 on a bill that would have replaced the law our own Supreme Court struck down in 1988, not for violating any clear constitutional right to abortion but on much narrower grounds. In the now backwards-heading United States, they have at least figured out how not to have tie votes in their Senate, which, unlike ours, is elected. 

Mme. Plante is not a U.S. citizen, nor even a dual citizen, so she doesn’t get to vote in U.S. elections so, lacking any leverage except her Twitter account, she’ll have to accept the SCOTUS decision whether she finds it hard to swallow or not. 

Speaking from Rwanda, our prime minister had a similar reaction: “We need to continue to stand strong … which Canada will do, whether it’s fighting for women’s rights here in Africa, or supporting people fighting for their rights in the United States and elsewhere.” Mr. Trudeau is not just a mayor but a national prime minister. Even so, his ability to fight for the rights of Africans and Americans is limited. How about he instead turn his rights passion to transgressions against people who actually fall within his jurisdiction? English-speakers in Quebec, say. 

We’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukrainians, the prime minister repeatedly tells us. He even went to Ukraine to literally stand beside President Zelenskyy. From Africa he says we’re “standing strong, to defend everybody’s rights and freedoms in Canada and … internationally.” (All this standing! Anyone got a chair?) But a provincial government in his own country is about to circumscribe use of one of that country’s two official languages — languages that have official status thanks largely to his own father — and he is basically silent, even when the outlawing is of businesses whose regulation is in his own federal jurisdiction. 

(The prime minister’s more-reported statement over the weekend was his twitting of Vladimir Putin for having once ridden horseback bare-chested. Fair enough. It was bizarre, even if good Liberals don’t mock other countries’ and cultures’ different customs. But this is a prime minister who kickstarted his own political career striking a bare-chested muscleman pose at the weigh-in for a charity boxing match. When he won the 2015 election NBC News re-ran the weigh-in photo, noting the tattoo on the prime ministerial bicep: “Meet Justin Trudeau: Canada’s Boxing, Strip-Teasing New PM.”)  

The reason the prime minister doesn’t campaign far and wide against Quebec’s Bill 96 is of course that it is popular among French-speaking Quebecers whose votes his minority government does not wish to lose. Like Mayor Plante, he doesn’t actually run in the U.S. so risks nothing electorally by speaking out. And the U.S. president’s party is with him on the substance of the SCOTUS decision. 

I wonder if he would be as forthright in his denunciation if a conservative Republican who actually liked the decision were in the White House — as may well be the case in 2025. My bet is his standing up would be much more circumspect. One true thing Donald Trump said while president (there were not many) was that Mr. Trudeau was two-faced: obsequious in private at the G7 summit in Quebec but defiantly standing up to him only in the press conference after Trump was comfortably aboard Air Force One. By such calculations are the limits of political courage determined. 

The Canadian constitution doesn’t actually say anything about abortion. It does say a lot about jurisdiction. The democratic virtue of jurisdiction is that it clarifies responsibility. Mme. Plante has no jurisdiction over American abortion law. She does have jurisdiction over policing, traffic and taxes in her city, which are increasingly dysfunctional. Mr. Trudeau has jurisdiction over airports, passports and the RCMP. No wonder he prefers talking about U.S. abortion law.  

Speaking of jurisdiction, there is much talk on CBC about preparations for a flood of American women coming to Canada to have abortions (rather than to New York, for some reason, which can’t be that the flights are cheaper). Can someone with jurisdictional responsibility please explain how the resulting queues will be handled, how much longer the expected wait times will be for Canadian women as a result, and who will pay for all these abortions? 

Financial Post