Canada

Pulling the plug

Ottawa orders an end to the Somalia inquiry

LUKE FISHER,JOHN DeMONT January 27 1997
Canada

Pulling the plug

Ottawa orders an end to the Somalia inquiry

LUKE FISHER,JOHN DeMONT January 27 1997

Pulling the plug

Canada

Ottawa orders an end to the Somalia inquiry

LUKE FISHER

JOHN DeMONT

Suddenly, it seems as if no one in Ottawa can keep a secret anymore. Consider the case of the four noted academics who accepted the federal government’s invitation to help chart a course for restructuring Canada’s armed forces. The panel was supposed to be hushhush—but someone gave the news to the media. “I was sure as hell surprised,” exclaimed panel member Jack Granatstein, a noted historian. “Its effectiveness has probably been weakened.” The next question was obvious: did Defence Minister Doug Young’s office prematurely leak the news in the hope of drowning out the incessant drip-drip-drip of military scandal? If so, it failed spectacularly.

Word of the blue-ribbon panel should have demonstrated an activist, forward-looking government searching for solutions rather than dwelling on its problems. Instead, it smacked of damage control—and failed to divert attention from Young’s decision, announced last week, to end the hearings by the commission of inquiry into Canada’s ill-fated 1992-1993 Somalia mission. In fact, Young’s refusal to extend the inquiry past its already extended March 31 deadline continued to smell like political interference to almost everyone: the media, the political opposition, even the

inquiry commissioners themselves, who now have until June 30 to write their report. “The way they’ve handled this is total nonsense, and Young was supposed to be no-nonsense,” declared Reform party defence critic Jim Hart.

Outside the inquiry room, things went from bad to worse for the military. Yet another disgraced Canadian commander, Lt.-Col. Roch Lacroix, was w relieved of his duties, this time I for allegedly using excessive I force against civilians in g Haiti—at a time when increas§ ing civil unrest signals new g challenges for the 1,500-memI ber UN peacekeeping force there. Then, army commander Maurice Baril released reports condemning the actions of some Canadian soldiers during a 1994 mission of mercy in Bosnia. And, at week’s end, retired colonel Geoff Haswell, seen by many as the scapegoat in the scandal over Somalia-related documents that were altered before being released to the media, was acquitted by a court martial. All of which made it hard to dispute military analyst Brian MacDonald, of Toronto-based Strategic Insight, when he moaned last week, “Canadians are growing weary of this string of scandals flowing from the department of national defence.”

So are the Grits. This is shaping up as one long winter for the Liberal government, which is expected to call an election this year. First came Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s controversial appearance at a

CBC television town hall meeting on December 10, and his refusal to apologize for the Liberals’ broken campaign promise to scrap the Goods and Services Tax. Then, just two weeks ago, the embarrassing settlement—precipitated by another leak to the media— with former prime minister Brian Mulroney over his $50-million libel suit against Ottawa arising from the RCMP’s investigation into the Airbus affair. Yet it is the military scandals that, hard as the federal government fries, will not go away.

To be fair, Young may have had a point when he decided the Somalia inquiry had taken too much time. Appointed almost two years ago, the inquiry was only one-third of the way through the ground it wanted to cover, and had already had its original December 22, 1995, deadline extended twice. On the other hand, other federal inquiries have certainly been time consuming. The royal commission into the February, 1982, sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil-drilling platform, appointed in March of that year, did not issue its report until July, 1985—more than three years later. And the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, appointed in October,

1989, wrapped up its work four years later. Last week, the aggrieved Somalia commissioners questioned the Liberals’ motives, implying that by bringing the inquiry to a close the Somalia scandal would be out of sight and mind by the time Canadians go to the polls, presumably next summer or fall. “It is a difficult time for them with an election coming,” noted inquiry head Gilles Létourneau.

The inquiry was triggered by the brutal torture and murder of 16-year-old Shidane Arone by Canadian soldiers in March, 1993, and the subsequent revelation of another death. In 143 days of hearings—and the examination of two million pages of documents—it has uncovered disturbing tales and allegations of irresponsibility, incompetence and coverup. Among a mountain of documents released by the inquiry last week was one from a military justice official claiming that he had informed the office of then-Defence Minister Kim Campbell about the Arone murder five days before she claims to have learned of the details. In response, Campbell, who was told last week that Young’s decision will prevent her from testifying at the inquiry, was scathing. “His claims are totally off the wall and don’t coincide with the other documents the commission has in its possession,” she shot back in an interview with Maclean’s.

Some politicians have been more severely wounded by the Somalia affair. Former Liberal defence minister David Collenette endured months of steady pounding in the House of Commons. Last October, an inappropriate note he sent to the department of immigration on behalf of a constituent gave him an opening to resign. But Young, his tough-talking successor, has been on the offensive from the moment he took the job. His first step was to sack Gen. Jean Boyle as chief of the defence staff. Boyle, appointed by Collenette, was at the centre of the documentL.F. tampering scandal, and had become a political liability for the government. Since

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then, Young has announced a full-scale review of the armed forces and, in the meantime, frozen all military promotions.

His latest move, though, has thrown the entire inquiry into disarray. And it raises troubling questions about whether Canadians will ever hear the whole Somalia story—particularly about high-ranking involvement in the affair. Apart from Campbell, the inquiry also wanted to hear from a host of other key figures. Among them: Campbell’s former deputy minister of defence, Bob Fowler, now Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations; former chief of the defence staff General John de Chastelain, now involved in peace negotiations in Northern Ireland; and Admiral John Anderson, now Canada’s ambassador to NATO and also a former chief of defence staff. Ultimately, the inquiry hoped to clarify who said what to whom and when—in an attempt to determine whether there really was an effort to cover up the events.

Technically, the commission, now hearing testimony about on-the-ground details of the Somalia mission, could change course and concentrate on the flow of information and goings-on in the corridors of Ottawa. But the commissioners say they cannot ask senior political, military and departmental figures to appear until the inquiry has a complete picture of what actually happened in Somalia. The absence of that high-ranking testimony could, in fact, threaten the validity of the commission’s final report—and result in any

subsequent charges being thrown out of court. Said inquiry co-counsel Barbara Mclsaac: “If we overstep the bounds, we may be faced with a court challenge.”

In the meantime, the wide-ranging report on defence policy ordered by Young is due on Chrétien’s desk by the end of March. The defence minister has gone far outside the military for advice. Judge Brian Dickson, the retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, will lead an inquiry into the military justice system, including the questionable practice of sometimes having military police investigate their own superiors. But Young has thrown the big job to his blue-ribbon panel, which consists of Granatstein, fellow historians Desmond Morton and David Bercuson and political scientist Albert Legault. “I’ll write on the basis of what I know now and whatever I learn,” Granatstein said last week.

I That prospect worries some observers, among them Reform’s Jim ¡Í Hart. He is, he says, concerned about I the impartiality of both Granatstein and $ Morton who, for one thing, publicly Ï leapt to the defence of Boyle last sum£ mer when the commission was pillorying him over the document-altering scandal. Others, though, say that Young has done the right thing by looking farther afield to balance the advice he is receiving from DND bureaucrats and officers. Given the scale of the problems afflicting the military, the minister can clearly use all the help he can get. □