Ottawa

Closed doors and veiled threats

Robert Lewis December 18 1978
Ottawa

Closed doors and veiled threats

Robert Lewis December 18 1978

Closed doors and veiled threats

Ottawa

The McDonald “commission of inquiry concerning certain activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police” marked an anniversary of sorts last Friday: it was precisely a year ago that the first witness from the Security Service appeared to testify. What was different about last week, and the three preceding ones, was that the questioning took place behind closed doors. The inquiry has arrived at the crunch point—examination of government officials and ministers—and a fascinating struggle has been played out behind the scenes. At issue is how much information the government will allow to become public.

Until this fall, while the inquiry publicly grilled lower-echelon gumshoes and government lawyers successfully limited the scope of the Quebec inquiry on the RCMP under Jean Keable, there were few problems. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau adopted a stance of benign unconcern, for example, when last February he defended a government bill to legalize mail opening by the police in security and crime investigations. “Now that we are told it is illegal and that illegal things are done,” Trudeau declared, “we are making them legal.” Since then the bill has been quietly shelved. As the McDonald inquiry moved up the pecking order, Trudeau stopped musing about the way things ought to be. Instead he has involved himself personally in strategy sessions about the McDonald commission itself. Gradually, Trudeau has shifted the focus of a major chunk of officialdom to the RCMP issue.

In October Trudeau directed his top bureaucrat, cabinet secretary Michael Pitfield, to supervise “the flow” of government documents on security policy requested by the commission. The McDonald inquiry was suspicious of the move. By convention, Pitfield is the official custodian of papers from governments, past and present. His reliance on hoary constitutional precedents from Britain had the effect of slowing McDonald’s access to cabinet documents—papers that may reveal the effective origins of questionable SS activities against suspected subversives in the early 1970s.

The result was to drive the McDonald commission into its fourth consecutive week of in camera hearings. For most of

that time former SS director John Starnes testified about government documents which, he claims, support his assertion that ministers knew SS operatives had to break laws to perform their government-ordered assignments. The government argues that it can’t allow the documents to become public because cabinet confidences have to be

preserved, although Trudeau says that anything documenting ministerial knowledge of wrongdoing will be released.

That the inquiry has the paper at all is in large part due to the relentless pursuit of Chairman David McDonald, the Alberta Supreme Court judge. McDonald has spent weekends at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa, red-tagging documents in the voluminous files for photocopying. In the search, authorized

under the inquiry’s terms of reference, McDonald turned up copies of papers on security policy, including cabinet minutes which record private discussions and debates of ministers. Last October, as the documents were about to become public, government lawyers tentatively argued that the commission—and even the RCMP—had no right to the documents. McDonald shot that submission down, but agreed to take testimony about the papers in camera.

Pitfield argued that long-established convention requires him to keep cabinet minutes secret, and that to release the minutes he will have to seek approval from anyone who is or ever has been a member of any Canadian cabinet. That would be about 135 people.

By last week McDonald pronounced himself satisfied that he is now getting the documents he wants. “I am at ease,” says McDonald. But the development, Maclean's has learned, came only after a veiled threat of a subpoena—not to mention government recognition of a stark political reality: with Opposition leader Joe Clark throwing off barbs that Trudeau is “the Nixon of the North,” and with the press adopting what Trudeau labels a “Watergate envy” stance, any overt stonewalling would have backfired. “No one,” says a senior government official, “is playing games with David McDonald. No one could afford to play games. This government is in enough trouble.”

So far there has been no public testimony that clearly shows ministerial knowledge of any wrongdoing. Indeed the various ministers in charge at the time have asserted that they were not aware of such SS operations as a raid without warrant in 1972 at Montreal offices of suspected FLQ sympathizers, the 1973 removal of Parti Québécois membership lists, the burning of a Quebec barn and a theft of dynamite, rough handling of suspected FLQ cell members, or even a 20-year-old Security Service practice of opening mail in contravention of the Post Office Act. Leaked government accounts of closeddoor testimony by Starnes, in fact, suggest that a shaken former SS head has failed to link ministers to the questionable acts.

It will now be at least February before the McDonald commission examines former solicitors-general responsible for the RCMP, because of previously scheduled hearings across Canada to listen to the public’s views on the rolexff the Security Service. The result, which is giving the Trudeau government the shivers, is that examination of ministers and senior officials may continue until next spring or early summer—just about the time the Liberals will be gearing up for a federal election.

Robert Lewis