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She's a master at winning the tough fights, but Marie Henein misses 'the good old days'

Marie Henein stands with Moses Znaimer at the ideacity conference in Toronto on June 19.
Marie Henein stands with Moses Znaimer at the ideacity conference in Toronto on June 19.

When the Charter was a child and Marie Henein was 21, the country was debating abortion, prostitution and gay marriage.

“Back then, the fights were cleaner,” Henein said in a speech Wednesday. “No one’s values systems or beliefs were under attack … but what happened to that? That fundamental democratic dialogue, the inherent decency of it, the inherent politeness of Canadian dialogue. Well overnight, it seemed to disappear as people become more strident.”

As the lawyer who defended Jian Ghomeshi after he was accused of assaulting women and who represented Vice-Admiral Mark Norman after he was accused of leaking cabinet confidences, Henein is a master of controversial fights. She has built a career on cases that have divided public opinion, but she romanticizes a time less divisive.

“I admit that for years I had naively taken it all for granted, what we have in this country, the inherent decency of Canadians,” she said. “I genuinely believe that.”

What Henein genuinely believes does not often emerge in public. She has declined to give TED Talks, she said in an interview before her speech, but she agreed to speak on Wednesday at  ideacity , an annual conference held in Toronto, hosted by Moses Znaimer, co-founder of CityTV and MuchMusic. Speakers include Conrad Black and Rick Mercer, and attendees include the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, a classical violinist and people willing to pay $3,000 to $5,000 for a three-day pass.

Znaimer says he visited Henein at her office nearly three months ago and invited her to speak. “People who confuse her as being anti-feminist could not be more wrong,” Znaimer said in an interview. “I just had to worm my way into her schedule.”

Henein, meanwhile, warned that populism is worming its way into Canada. After Ontario Premier Doug Ford overruled a judge’s decision last year and downsized city council, Henein said his move — and the criticism of activist judges from other politicians — threatened to delegitimize the judicial system and consolidate power.

“That’s what it’s about, all under the guise that this one elected official is the true voice of the people,” she said. “That’s a scam, friends, a complete and utter scam. Snake oil.”

For a lawyer who depends on precision in court, her speech sometimes lacked definition. She did not define the populism she warned about, and she did not mention certain causes including the decline of labour unions and the 2008 recession. She did criticize the hypersensitivity of safe spaces and the overuse of criminal law.

“The public is falsely told, ‘All sorts of complex social problems? No problem, we can solve them at the courthouse door,’” she said. “This is not true. It is a lie you are being told.”

She spoke after Irwin Cotler, the former federal justice minister who tabled the legislation to legalize gay marriage under Paul Martin’s Liberal government.

“The cool thing is that people, even though there was gay marriage, still got to get married,” said Henein. “No one was under attack…. All that was happening was that they were recognizing the right that not everyone needs to live the same way.”

She admitted she might have selective memory. “Maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part,” she said. “You know, the way we all look back on something and think, ‘Oh, those were the good old days.’”

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