Tories fight back in legislature


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WINNIPEG — The gloves are coming off in the house as the provincial election looms on the horizon.

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WINNIPEG — The gloves are coming off in the house as the provincial election looms on the horizon.

On Wednesday, the governing Progressive Conservatives attacked NDP MLA Mark Wasyliw for continuing his criminal defence practice and its website for advertising with promos such as “Drinking and driving is not against the law.”

The PCs — who lag in successive polls pointing to the New Democrats winning the 2023 election (expected Oct. 3) — issued a news release accusing the member for Fort Garry of moonlighting and neglecting his work as an elected representative.

Neither Mark Wasyliw nor the NDP caucus agreed to an interview Wednesday, but issued a statement saying the PC claims are "incorrect" and "Mark Wasyliw does not represent the person in question." (The Canadian Press)

“He has repeatedly been absent from the legislature to appear in court as a lawyer — many times representing drivers charged with DUIs,” said the message from the PC caucus, chaired by MLA Ron Schuler. “[Wasyliw] maintains active online ads where he advertises … ‘Facing sexual assault charges in Winnipeg? We can help!’ [and] ‘We’ll fight to keep you out of jail.’”

The Tories’ political attack follows the NDP’s pre-election campaign promise of free birth control and its hammering of the government in question period over the mass resignation of sexual assault nurse examiners (trying to pin the blame on Health Minister Audrey Gordon).

“This is indicative of how parties will be attacking one another over the next few months,” said University of Winnipeg political science Prof. Félix Mathieu.

Expect it to get even “nastier,” added veteran analyst Paul Thomas.

“As we get further into the session and closer to the election, the content and tone of debates will become more hyper-partisan, nastier and more personal,” said the University of Manitoba political studies professor emeritus.

“The content and tone of the news release is meant to inflict maximum political damage on Mr. Wasyliw and his party,” Thomas said. “The high-octane language of the release reflects the highly partisan and combative approach practised by Mr. Schuler since he entered the legislature and when he served as a minister.”

Schuler was removed from cabinet by Premier Heather Stefanson in December 2021, after failing to disclose his COVID-19 vaccination status.

On March 17, the Winnipeg Free Press reported on a court case in which Wasyliw was one of the lawyers seeking a lesser sentence for a client convicted of trafficking cocaine.

Criminal defence lawyers play an important role in the legal system, and those accused are innocent until proven guilty, but “the optics of an elected official defending serious charges and pleading to keep alleged criminals out of jail is concerning and sends the wrong message as our province works to combat rising crime rates,” the Tory news release said.

Neither Wasyliw nor the NDP caucus agreed to an interview Wednesday, but issued a statement saying the PC claims are “incorrect” and “Mark Wasyliw does not represent the person in question.”

Meantime, Mathieu said, across Canada, lawyers continuing to practise after being elected to a provincial role is not unusual.

“Last week, in Quebec, immigration lawyer Guillaume Cliche-Rivard won the provincial byelection in the district of Saint-Henri-Sainte-Anne, and told reporters he’s planning to continue working as a lawyer,” the U of W professor said.

“While this varies from province to province, my understanding is that, normally, an MLA that wishes to continue to work as a lawyer meets with the conflict of interest commissioner, or their equivalent, to make sure they are not pursuing any professional activities that may be deemed unethical,” he said.

“[However,] there are many reasons why an MLA wouldn’t want to continue to work as a criminal defence lawyer — or in any capacity external to their job as MLA, for that matter.”

It opens the door to being questioned by constituents and political adversaries over whether they are giving all the required attention to the job they were elected to do, Mathieu added.

Thomas said the PCs are seizing on an opportunity to promote themselves as the law-and-order party.

“In light of recent, troubling, random attacks on citizens and other high-profile crimes, the PCs believe that law and order will be an effective wedge issue that brings voters back to their side,” he said.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the PCs posted on social media a video clip of NDP house leader Nahanni Fontaine scrumming with reporters but not answering if Wasyliw’s work as a lawyer has had any impact on his duties as an MLA.

Fontaine said her party remains focused on the issue of sexual assault nurse examiners resigning en masse, and demanded the PC government be held accountable.

Meanwhile, Mathieu said it would be “wise” for the NDP to ask Wasyliw to “revise” the narrative of some of his ads.

“Instead of insisting on the idea that ‘drinking and driving is not a crime,’ the NDP could look for an alternative, more positive strategy,” he said.

“There is evidence that people that are at the intersection of many socioeconomic challenges are more likely to be found guilty of DUI, and that they, too, deserve the best legal representation if one believes in social rehabilitation,” Mathieu said.

“The NDP need to answer: do they work for drunk drivers and drug traffickers or Manitobans?”

» Winnipeg Free Press

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