It resembled the hilarious assemblyline scene from the Charlie Chaplin classic, Modern Times—as David McDonald, commissioner of the RCMP inquiry, pointed out. There was Pierre Lamontagne, the stocky little gamecock of an attorney for the force, straining against the clock to maintain the flow of top-secret documents along the row of lawyers and into the witness box. But every time a paper reached the end of the line, up popped a government lawyer to object. Grinning, McDonald told Lamontagne: “Just remember: keep it going.”
But there was nothing comical about the process that unfolded last week in
Ottawa before the three-member panel* sitting in a stuffy hearing room. The witness was former RCMP commissioner William (Len) Higgitt (1969 to 1973). For two days he testified that a series of Liberal solicitors-general, responsible for the force during Pierre Trudeau’s tenure, had been informed of illicit or illegal practices by the Security Service. Lawyers for two ministers, Jean-Pierre Goyer (1970-1972) and Warren Allmand (1972-1976) were understandably livid.
Before their clients even testified, they demanded the right to cross-examine Higgitt before the week was over to counter the headlines, but Lamontagne first sought to make public documents which he said would prove Higgitt’s charges. The government lawyers, who wanted Higgitt grilled,
nonetheless objected because they argued government documents should be kept secret. The effect was to delay cross-examination.
Suggestions in the Commons by aggressive Conservative MP John Crosbie that the government “sure would” destroy damaging documents, provoked a testy retort from Trudeau who snapped: “Who said ‘we sure would’? I’ll kick his ass.” Over at the commission hearings, meanwhile, three days of hearings left more questions than answers. Most disturbing of all is the possibility that the public may never know precisely what role ministers played—ordering or supervising—SS activities in the 1970s.
For now there is only Higgitt’s claim—cut off by government lawyer Joe Nuss—that “the question of separa-
* Sitting with McDonald are lawyers Guy Gilbert, of Montreal, and Donald Rickerd, Toronto.
tism as it was then seen was of some concern to government. That concern was passed down ...” According to Higgitt—his testimony, inexplicably, was not challenged in any detail by the commission-ministers were aware that RCMP agents had to break the law to get the job done. Citing a policy he had issued that the force would stand behind men who “put themselves at risk,” Higgitt testified under oath: “I discussed it with ministers from time to time in oral as well as written form. The problem was placed on ministers’ desks.” Asked commission lawyer Jake Howard: “And did you, at any time, receive any instructions from ministers that such a policy was inappropriate?” Higgitt: “No, I never did.”
The sworn testimony flatly contradicts what the Trudeau government has been saying ever since the first RCMP caper, the raid in 1972 to remove documents at offices of left-wing groups in Montreal, came to light in 1976—that it was an “isolated” incident and that the government was unaware of other questionable RCMP operations.
Higgitt, again contradicting the government, asserted that he also discussed the illegal opening of mail by the SS with his political bosses. Certainly,” he told the inquiry, “there was no secret of the fact that we were doing it, and that secret was not held from ministers. They were seeing the results in various forms.” Howard: “And by the results you mean they were getting reports which, when you read them, indicated that, unless you had x-ray eyes, somebody had been looking at the mail?” Higgitt: “That’s fair to say, sir.” Warren Allmand, who is eagerly waiting to appear before McDonald, has already refuted Higgitt’s charges. Testifying before the Quebec RCMP inquiry under Jean Keable—currently shut down pending a Supreme Court ruling—Allmand said last February: “I am absolutely certain that I put the question directly, did they open mail, and I was told by the RCMP that they did not. They categorically denied they opened mail.” Allmand’s claim was supported persuasively by Higgitt himself: in 1973 Allmand sent a letter to Conservative MP Allan Lawrence assuring him that the Mounties didn’t open mail. That letter, Higgitt testified last week, was drafted by the RCMP. Thus Higgitt has changed his story from last February when he told the Keable probe: “I would say with almost positive certainty that this was not prepared by the RCMP.”
On one other key matter, there is total disagreement between the government and its own police force—the secret entry at offices of the Agence de Presse Libre du Québec just before the 1972 election. Goyer has said in the Commons that he was not informed in
advance about the break-in; Higgitt and then-SS chief John Starnes say they can’t recall, but would be “surprised” they hadn’t informed Goyer. Higgitt reaffirmed his stand last week when he declared: “It would be completely out of character for me or Mr. Starnes not to have raised it with the solicitorgeneral.” However the record shows that Higgitt did not bother to correct a public statement by then-Quebec justice minister Jérôme Choquette that the police were not involved. Prodded by McDonald on that lapse, Higgitt said weakly: “That was not my
The three commissioners were particularly doubtful about Higgitt’s stated policy of standing by his men if they got into trouble—particularly because of an
internal RCMP legal memo released last week which said a member “is within his rights to refuse to do any unlawful acts. Though no disciplinary action would be taken, a transfer may be indicated in such a situation.” This, Higgitt explained, was meant to cover situations where a member “can’t meet the pressure” of an assignment. “It’s no different than a person who can’t pilot an airplane because he can’t stand the motion.” But McDonald declared: “That is a kind of punishment.”
Higgitt replied that RCMP members were big boys, experienced in the ways of the “jungle out there.” Besides, junior officers wouldn’t be timid about questioning dubious orders. “They don’t act as robots,” Higgitt declared. With a look that suggested he was conjuring up the year-long litany of Mountie excesses placed before him, McDonald retorted: “I take it you haven’t been following evidence before this commission.”
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.