Ottawa

A game of truth and consequences

Julianne Labreche April 16 1979
Ottawa

A game of truth and consequences

Julianne Labreche April 16 1979

A game of truth and consequences

Ottawa

After nearly 21 hours of gruelling testimony ranging over four days of public hearings, the strain was showing on the still-determined face of federal cabinet minister Warren Allmand as he stepped down from the witness stand at the McDonald Commission last week. Under more than just routine grilling, the former solicitorgeneral was standing firm to his original stance. His constant theme during this examination soon became as routine as the commission’s own daily 11:30 recess: that under no circumstances was the RCMP to act outside the law. % During one mid-day press scrum pursu3 ing the same line of questioning, an exasperated Allmand shot back: “How many times do I have to tell you? Do I have to write it on a blackboard? N-O, I didn’t know of illegalities.”

Such protests were not sufficient, however, to quash lingering suspicions that if certain cabinet minsters were not aware of RCMP wrongdoing, perhaps it had been because they had not bothered to ask. For his part, Allmand, the first in a series of cabinet minsters to testify before the commission in coming weeks, defended himself by arguing that when controversial questions were posed to the force, members of it sometimes deceived him, if they had not deliberately lied. Citing examples, he called to mind an incident when he asked the RCMP if Roy Atkinson, past president of the National Farmer’s Union, was under surveillance. A reply came back to the contrary. It was only later, after he went to his own sources, that he got the full story from the police: true, the RCMP were not keeping tabs on the western farmer the day the issue was raised, but had been only a month before. “I felt very much betrayed when I learned about many of these things,” Allmand told the three commissioners. “It appears now that I did not get full answers even when I did ask specifically.”

The most serious of such incidents concerns the 1970s RCMP secret operation code-named Cathedral, involving the force illegally opening mail in certain criminal and security matters. “I can recall very clearly putting this question to the RCMP—Do you open mail? And they said ‘No’,” asserted Allmand. Instead, he remembers with some irony the police asking him that the law be changed and the practice made legal. Allmand’s testimony at

that point contrasted sharply with that of retired RCMP commissioner William Higgitt, who had earlier told the commission that three former Liberal solicitors-general, including Allmand, knew of mail openings. “There was no secret of the fact that we were doing it, and that secret was not held from minsters,” Higgitt had said.

The truth in this Allmand-Higgitt stand-off must be left to the commission to decide. Meanwhile, Allmand’s defence was not swallowed holus-bolus by the commission’s two sharp lawyers. Each pointed out several incidents where Allmand actually was confronted with nasty details of RCMP illegality but chose by purpose or just plain oversight to turn a blind eye. Filed as evidence was an October, 1974, article from the Montreal daily Le Devoir, brought to Allmand’s attention during his stay in office as solicitor-general. It concerns a thesis written by Guy Tardif, now minister of municipal affairs in the Parti Québécois government and a former Mountie, making public “Operation 300,” a code name for hundreds of illegal police break-ins carried out during the 1970s. Allmand was prepared by his advisers to simply tell the Commons he was examining the issue should the question become hot politically, but the subject never arose and he dropped any investigation. On that note, Commissioner Don Rickerd interrupted Allmand’s testimony to remark sarcastically: “I take it this is not a case where you asked one of your own backbenchers to ask a question?”

As Allmand pointed out in another

connection, his four-year term as solicitor-general was an extremely busy time, scrambling from one serious political issue to the next, even though some of those concerns—like the RCMP Centennial in 1973 and whether patrol cars should have bilingual identification signs—seem trivial. Not so insignificant, however, is the dangerous effect of this current investigation of the RCMP on the political fortunes of Allmand, and other Liberals, in the upcoming federal election. As Jean-Pierre Goyer’s lawyer pointed out earlier last week, just before being denied a request to postpone his client’s testimony until after the election, “It will be very difficult for Mr. Goyer to give evidence when he anticipates it could be put to use by political leaders.” Julianne Labreche