Ottawa

There’s the smoke, where’s the gun?

LES WHITTINGTON May 4 1981
Ottawa

There’s the smoke, where’s the gun?

LES WHITTINGTON May 4 1981

There’s the smoke, where’s the gun?

Ottawa

LES WHITTINGTON

The four-year-old McDonald commission on RCMP wrongdoing made a final try last week to find the “smoking gun” that has eluded it through years of public testimony about the Mounties’ questionable activities. In its first open session in six months, and just a month before its final report is due, the commission recalled two former top RCMP officers to the stand to testify on previously secret documents indicating Parliament may have been misled by the force. As usual, the witnesses’ main contribution was enough skating for the Ice Capades.

The questioning centred on RCMP wiretapping. Before 1974, when such eavesdropping was legalized, the force’s policy forbade it except in security cases. The commission has long been aware that investigating officers often ignored those guidelines in the pre-1974 years. But last week, the inquiry concentrated on a different, more serious matter—the possibility that in the early 1970s the RCMP’s most senior officers deliberately lied to MPs about the gap between RCMP policy and practice on wiretapping. These new suspicions arose earlier this year when fresh in camera evidence heard by the inquiry sent staffers foraging once again through RCMP files. Among the documents produced was an internal RCMP brief dated October, 1972, stating that the Mounties “do in fact tap telephones in the face of official policy to the contrary, directly and indirectly through the medium of other police agencies and telephone companies.”

In his testimony Wednesday, former RCMP commissioner Maurice Nadon, on whose orders the brief had been prepared, nonetheless said he doubted its accuracy. He maintained that the brief’s authors, senior RCMP noncommissioned officers, “padded their language,” and he said illegal wiretapping had never been a “common practice.” Nadon, who seemed to strain both the credulity and patience of commission members, said he had not informed the solicitor-general or carried out his own internal inquiry on those allegations because he “had no more than a suspicion that some members, on occasion, were disobeying the policy” on tappings. Asked why he had flatly denied the use of these methods by the force in criminal cases at justice committee hearings in June, 1973—eight months after the in-house brief had been written—Nadon said he had “just covered the highlights” of RCMP practice and “didn’t want to go into all the details” with the MPs. The force’s preoccupation in the early 1970s, he added, was lobbying Parliament for more liberal wiretapping rules, not dragging up past wrongdoings.

Former commissioner Leonard Higgitt was no more helpful to the commission than Nadon. Commission counsel Brian Crane produced an interoffice transit slip dated Dec. 22,1972, indicating the brief in question had been sent to Higgitt. But Higgitt said: “I have no knowledge of it. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve never seen it.” He noted Dec. 22 was the “last working day before Christmas that year,” a day when he said nothing of importance would have been passed to him.

Still no smoking gun, but when former solicitor-general Warren Allmand was summoned as a “mystery witness” at a night sitting, he recalleddoingsome puzzled sniffing of his own about RCMP procedures. In an emotional performance, he maintained the Mounties had consistently told him their policy was not to wiretap on criminal cases. And this stuck in his mind, he said, because it was “illogical and bizarre” since the force had no qualms about other types of electronic surveillance—such as bugging.