It was fleeting, but for spectators at the McDonald inquiry into the RCMP last week, it was there for all to see: Commissioner Guy Gilbert actually closed his eyes. As he opened them wide seconds later, it looked as if Gilbert expected the scene before him to have disappeared. But no, there in his fifth long day of testimony sat former RCMP commissioner William Higgitt, expounding in flat, gravelly tones—all the while frustrating the hearing with his imprécisions. At one point during cross-examination on day six, Gilbert remarked impatiently to Higgitt: “I don’t think we’re on the same wavelength.”
And so it appeared as Higgitt, with an air of casualness, tossed off repeated, headline-grabbing accounts that ministers knew all along about possible RCMP lawbreaking—but then failed to back them up. The most celebrated example of the week was a letter that former solicitor-general Warren Allmand wrote to Conservative MP Allan Lawrence in December, 1973, which stated: “I have been assured by the RCMP that it is not their practice to intercept the private mail of anyone.”
Last February Higgitt testified before the Keable Commission* in Montreal “with absolute ... or with almost positive certainty” that the letter had not been prepared by the RCMP. In fact it was passed to Allmand by Security Service Director Michael Dare. But even after that new information forced him to change his story before McDon-
ald, Higgitt last week argued that the RCMP letter is “still correct.” His reason: mail opening by the Security Service took place eight or nine times a year and “this in my judgment is not a practice.”
Then, pouring more fuel on his blaze,
Higgitt went on to suggest that Allmand knowingly misled Lawrence. “As a matter of fact,” Higgitt testified, “the practice was very often that ministers’ letters were not exactly drafted on pre-
* In a landmark decision last week the Supreme Court of Canada in effect shut Keable down by holding that a provincial inquiry can examine specific criminal acts, but that Keable exceeded his mandate by probing policies and practices of a federal force.
cise statements of fact. The practice would be to explain the whole circumstance to the minister and then say, ‘Mr. Minister, here is a draft which we suggest you might find suitable to send.’ ”
Allmand was livid about Higgitt’s testimony. “That is absolutely wrong,” he told Maclean's. “Never did they [RCMP] tell me they were opening mail. As a matter of fact when I asked them, on several occasions, they said they did not.” Allmand can barely wait to make these assertions under oath before McDonald because, as he puts it, “my reputation has been under a cloud.” In fact, Allmand plans to cite several examples publicly of instances when the Mounties misled him. Is he then planning to take the gloves off? “You’re bloody right I am.”
Lawrence and a former constituent, Wally Keeler of Toronto, were equally irate. The intent of the letter, Lawrence declared, “was to mislead me, and I’m sure it misled Mr. Keeler.” Keeler, a self-styled poet, had the idiosyncratic habit of addressing letters to friends using only their social insurance numbers and postal codes. Keeler claims that two Mounties arrived on his doorstep one day with one of his letters and Keeler took his complaint about mail tampering to Lawrence.
Last Friday it was Lawrence’s turn to protest. In the Commons he demanded a parliamentary investigation because, he said, his effectiveness had been damaged by government information. “If it had not been false,” said Lawrence, “I would have continued to ask questions.” Speaker James Jerome planned to rule this week.
Yves Fortier, the Montreal lawyer representing former solicitor-general Jean-Pierre Goyer, also attempted to knock down Higgitt’s earlier assertions that ministers knew about mail opening. Choosing his words carefully at Judge David McDonald’s urging, Fortier asked Higgitt if “specifically” he had ever discussed with Goyer “the fact that the RCMP was intercepting and opening mail.” Higgitt: “I simply can’t give [that assurance] with that precision. To do so would be stretching my memory beyond what I would be prepared to do.”
Higgitt stuck by previous claims that ministers knew that Security Service operatives sometimes had to break the law in the line of duty. “Whether the acts were ‘legal’ is a matter for others to decide,” said Higgitt. “But in fact they were not done without the general knowledge of political masters.”
Higgitt asserted that in the “desperate” days of the early 1970s, with “the threat” of violent upheaval on the anniversary of the October Crisis, “we were being required by the government to get certain information.” Any RCMP com-
missioner who said no, would not last long. Questioned closely by McDonald, Higgitt allowed that “there are circumstances when the urgency of a request from government would make transgressions of the law acceptable.” But, he testified, “we didn’t say to ourselves, ‘we have to break the law—so let’s get on with it.’” Would an RCMP commissioner, McDonald wondered, ever refuse instructions because it would involve lawbreaking? “Yes,” Higgitt replied, “he might do that, and I think that was done, sir.”
On that intriguing note the inquiry
moved behind closed doors, where Higgitt was cross-examined further on a packet of top-secret government documents which, Higgitt claims, back up his evidence about ministerial knowledge of RCMP wrongdoing. Lawyers for Allmand and Goyer are confident the paper does not support Higgitt, and they want the evidence in public. Eventually, the McDonald commission will decide how much, if any, of the documentation will be revealed.
On the basis of his public appearance,
the main issue last week was Higgitt’s credibility. One reporter went so far as to chat privately with Higgitt to see if the man might be senile—which, at a vigorous 61, he clearly isn’t. Government lawyer Joe Nuss tried a Perry Masonesque line of questioning which sought to establish that Higgitt was taking his oath less seriously before an inquiry than he would in a court of law. “Evidence is evidence,” Higgitt replied under repeated grilling. Finally, referring to his evidence on the Allmand letter before Keable, Higgitt conceded that “truthful and accurate could be two
different things. It was the absolute truth at that moment. One can have his memory refreshed.” Nuss: “The absolute truth, but not accurate?” Higgitt: “Well, I can agree with that.”
Given his background, Higgitt’s fine distinction was surprising. He was the top of his class after basic training in Regina and, as an intelligence officer during the Gouzenko spy trials in the 1940s, Higgitt was commended for his preparation of briefs and presentation of evidence. “He’s a puzzle,” sighed one government advocate. “He makes Guy LaFleur look like he skates in mud.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.