Q&A: Christie Blatchford, the National Post columnist whose new book critiques the justice system
Christie Blatchford’s opinionated columns in the National Post have a way of riling up disparate groups of people: she has angered Jack Layton supporters, feminists and First Nations activists. In her new book, Life Sentence, she chronicles her 40 years in the courtroom covering many of Canada’s most memorable trials, up to and including Jian Ghomeshi’s. She also critiques the justice system, saving her harshest words for the bigwigs behind the bench. We spoke with her about the courts, the media, and what makes her cry.
Your columns make people furious. Do consider that part of your job?
I certainly don’t consider it part of my job to be deliberately provocative, or to take a particular position just to be different. I write what I believe, and if that happens to be a contrarian take, that’s fine. But I don’t set out to poke the bear.
So when you’re writing a particular column, you’re not thinking, “This one’s really going get people going?”
No. Sometimes I don’t even know as I’m writing that a particular column will hit a nerve. It’s not like I get up in the morning and think, “Gee, I’m really going to annoy people today.” I guess that’s just part of my charm.
Was there a time when you were shocked by backlash to something you wrote?
I wrote a column on the day Jack Layton died. I knew him a bit. We once exchanged iPods on a campaign plane and we each wrote about the other’s taste in music. I set out to write an affectionate personal reminiscence, but then I ended up watching CBC News World and whoever was the anchor that day just enraged me by being so uber-deferential and almost romantic about Jack’s legacy. I changed my take. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I remember that I got more email than I’d ever received before. I didn’t think I was hard on Jack, but I wasn’t deferential. I had no idea that it was going to cause a stink, but it did. Too soon, as they say.
You say you have no problem admitting when you’ve made a mistake.
Oh, sure. I think that when I recognize that I’ve either been premature in my judgment or on the wrong side of something, I’m reasonably quick to say so. I do think part of my job it to admit when I screw up.
Is there a particular screwup that sticks with you?
In the disappearance and murder of Tori Stafford, her mom, Tara McDonald, had behaved very bizarrely, I thought. She had almost daily press conferences on her porch, and, in addition to being frantic and grief stricken, her behaviour was odd. I thought perhaps what she was hiding was some knowledge or involvement in the disappearance of her daughter. What she was actually hiding was her own drug problem. So, she was behaving in a weird and almost guilty-ish way, but she wasn’t guilty of anything relating to the disappearance of her child.
Are you someone who learns from her mistakes?
I have learned over the years to keep my opinions to myself until they’re informed opinions. Often I will change my mind three or four times over the course of a trial, so I will sometimes pull my punches out of necessity. It’s figuring out when to shut up, I guess. It’s not easy.
What kind of a dinner party guest are you? Are you banging your fists, starting debates?
Well, blessedly, I am invited to few dinner parties. I am mouthy, and I don’t know why I am mouthy, but I’m also shy. Many people in this business are shy even though they’re loud. So I end up being the worst imaginable dinner guest: someone who doesn’t say anything and then starts yelling.
Given your tough image, I was surprised to read in your book that you cry almost every day. What was the last thing that made you tear up?
Oh God, probably watching a commercial on television. I’m an easy weeper. My parents were both the same, especially my dad. I teared up at the Robin Camp inquiry, when the complainant in the original sex assault trial took the stand. She had a lot of guts. My predilection is to be the annoying person at the back of the funeral who nobody knows, but who is crying harder than anyone else.
The subtitle of your book is, “Stories from four decades of court reporting—or, how I fell out of love with the Canadian justice system (especially judges).” You’re critical of so many aspects of our system, so I wonder: if you had the power to make just one change, what would that be?
I would allow TV cameras in the courtroom, starting tomorrow. First of all, the judge would show up on time because he wouldn’t want the camera to catch him being late, like judges often are. They would start on time, their breaks would be halved, lunch would be quicker, and, as a result, an awful lot more would get done. Court theoretically sits from 10 to 4:30, but that’s just an absolute crock. Lawyers and judges seem to faint with exhaustion if they work more than 45 minutes without a break.
So you think cameras would bring about accountability?
Exactly. It would be a good reminder to everyone on the bench that they work for us, not the other way around.
A lot of people felt that the Ghomeshi trial highlighted inherent flaws in our legal system, and yet you say it restored your faith.
It did. First of all because the defence lawyers did not resort to gender stereotypes and rape myths. There was none of that.
You mean stuff like, “What were you wearing?” Or, “How much had you had to drink?”
That’s right. Or, “Why didn’t you report sooner?” All of those things that are based on this idea of how a female victim should behave. The Ghomeshi trial demonstrated that you can have a sex assault trial in the modern criminal justice system without any of that and it can be effective. The other element was the judge’s decision. There was very little flowery horseshit, and I liked him for not pandering to the baying of the crowd, which wanted to hear how unjustly women are treated. What offends me is the notion that women are children—that they need to have their hands held. Those women didn’t need support; they needed good, solid legal advice. Sexual assault is, I’m sure, a traumatic, awful thing to go through, but it doesn’t mean the person who suffered it needs to be treated like a baby. I loathe the infantilization of women. We are as fully grown up and capable as men and need to be treated as such.