To the relief of campaigning federal Liberals last week, there was no sign of a smoking pistol pointing to ministerial knowledge of past illegal acts by the RCMP Security Service. But a Vesuvian tide of documentation* released by the McDonald inquiry contained a surprise disclosure and an unsettling question. The disclosure: having been warned by the RCMP about the potential for future illegalities by the SS, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his cabinet, basically, did nothing. The question: if ministers never heard the gory details—not yet established under oath—did they intentionally fail to ask, because they didn’t want to know?
The answer is for the McDonald inquiry to decide, as it continues public hearings during the election by putting former ministers and senior Mounties on the stand. The commission also will have to consider the context of the latest revelations—the jittery aftermath of the October Crisis in 1970. At the time the Trudeau government was pressuring the SS for better intelligence, through infiltration, about suspected FLQ cells in Quebec.
The problem, as an RCMP report noted in 1970, was that undercover agents inevitably were forced to perform “criminal acts” to win their wings in the terrorist milieu. A memo on the subject placed before Trudeau’s inner cabinet of senior ministers on Nov. 20,1970, urged an “early solution.” The dilemma was the “inherent contradiction” between the RCMP role as law enforcers and the mandate of the SS, whose activities might be “contrary to the law.” No decision was made.
On Dec. 16, 1970, a memo to the cabinet committee on security, also chaired by Trudeau, urged changes in legislation and raised the question of “providing some kind of immunity from arrest” for agents “who have to break the law in order successfully to infiltrate movements like the FLQ.” Trudeau deferred the discussion.
By Sept. 8, 1971, when then justice minister John Turner submitted a memo to cabinet, the issue was cast in more lofty terms, as “freedom within the law.” But again the decision was diverted—this time, back to the secu-
*Fully 97It pages of evidence taken in camera last fall from former SS director John Starnes and excommissioner William Hiyyitt, plus more than 100 payes of previously secret RCMP and government documents.
rity committee of cabinet. Testified former SS director John Starnes: “We never really did get the opportunity to sit down with ministers and tell them precisely and exactly what it was we had in mind.” Apparently without supervision from the government, the Mounties then undertook a series of operations whose legality are now being investigated by McDonald. At a press conference in Saskatoon, Trudeau dodged questions on the subject, declaring: “Wait until you hear the other side before you make up your mind about any illegalities.”
Starnes did have a private chat with his then boss, solicitor-general George Mcllraith, on Nov. 24, 1970. A note handwritten by Starnes on the meeting
reads: “I mentioned to the minister that the RCMP had in fact been carrying out illegal activities for two decades and that this point had been made in various discussions.” But when Starnes was asked repeatedly if he could cite a specific illegality discussed with Mcllraith, he allowed weakly: “To be honest, I guess the answer would be no.” But, Starnes maintained, he didn’t think specifics were necessary because Mcllraith “was very knowledgeable.”
The inquiry plans to hear from former solicitor-general Jean-Pierre Goyer, now retired. Apart from examining Goyer on whether he knew in advance of any possibly illegal acts, the commission will have a chance to explore the general relationships the minister had with the RCMP. It was at least suggested in last week’s evidence that the hard questions were rarely asked. As one memo on SS eavesdropping noted of Goyer, “The minister made it clear that he did not want to be acquainted with the operational side.” Goyer did, however, want to hear the results. The question that lingers is, did he ask about the means? Robert Lewis
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