A convenient slip of the tongue

David Thomas May 17 1982

A convenient slip of the tongue

David Thomas May 17 1982

A convenient slip of the tongue

David Thomas

Even in normal times Montreal’s modern courthouse is a crossroads of human contradiction: sallow-cheeked welfare mothers on shoplifting charges mingle with expensively tanned lawyers; police and criminals become virtually indistinguishable in their best courtroom double-knits; and obviously impenitent prostitutes glance sardonically at just-married brides in girlish frocks. But rarely has there been an odder juxtaposition than last Friday when Quebec Justice Minister Marc-André Bédard inspected scarlet-tunicked Mounties in honor of Police Week. One floor up, his chief prosecutor was trying to convict 17 present or former horsemen of crimes related to political terrorism. The irony hardened when—as the justice minister rose to review the police honor guard—word filtered down from Courtroom 411 that the test case against the first of the 17 federal cops had disintegrated in a mistrial.

The blame for the judicial upset rested squarely with the minister’s boss, Premier René Lévesque. The premier’s intemperate public attack on the credibility of a key defence witness caused Quebec Superior Court Judge Claire Barrette-Joncas to rule that a fair trial had become impossible. Now the accused officer, RCMP Insp. Claude Vermette, must return to court on Aug. 30 to have a date set for a new trial on charges that in 1973 he and 10 other peace officers stole computer tapes containing the membership list of the Parti Québécois. Unless, of course, the Quebec government decides to withdraw the charges against Vermette and the other policemen facing accusations ranging from the theft of dynamite to the burning of a barn and press-gang techniques in the recruiting of informers.

Not only that, there were suggestions that the mistrial was welcomed—even provoked—by the provincial government, which may have been alarmed at the turn of testimony last week. Lévesque had been clearly warned before his startling remarks about the trial last Wednesday that he had no right to make such comments because he could prejudice a matter before the courts. The mistrial was declared because of the premier’s characterization of witness Robert Potvin as a putois or “skunk” after Potvin testified that a PQ spy ring had used prostitutes to pry information from federal politicians and public servants.

On the surface, it appeared that the premier had been goaded into reckless anger in the national assembly by Lib-

eral Opposition Leader Claude Ryan, who had demanded that Lévesque confirm or deny the allegation that PQ Mata Haris had traded sex for secrets. But, according to a defence lawyer who claims to have seen documentary evidence of such sexual spy activity, Lévesque’s outburst may have been carefully calculated to abort the trial and prevent further testimony on the alleged use of prostitute-spies under the control of a highly placed PQ figure. Said lawyer Arthur Campeau after the mistrial: “Maybe Mr. Lévesque considered that it was getting a little too hot for comfort and that it was time to bring this trial to an end.” As a lawyer representing two of the accused RCMP officers, Campeau was accorded highlevel security clearance so that he could see documents necessary to the preparation of the defence case. He said that the documents, if presented in court, would have detailed the operations of the alleged prostitute spy ring. “We were not bluffing,” he declared. “The contents of those files would confirm and corroborate everything that was said in court and they would give names and dates.”

It was federal Solicitor General Robert Kaplan who blocked introduction of the files that defence lawyers claim are

crucial to their case. Kaplan used a controversial section of the Federal Court Act to refuse to release the files on the grounds of national security. Not even the judge could review their contents. Whether they are indeed a menace to national security, the files necessarily also include the identities of the alleged prostitutes and high-ranking clients, including federal politicians and bureaucrats.

The use of prostitutes by PQ agents was just one of the undercover activities described by defence witnesses in an attempt to justify the break-in as necessary in the interests of Canadian security. Potvin, who was second in command of the RCMP’s anti-separatist “G” Section, said PQ spying activities in the early 1970s were co-ordinated by prominent party members. He claimed that the wife of a spy-ring leader had trained in underwater demolition techniques and that the RCMP had discovered a plan to blow up the Interprovincial Bridge between Ottawa and Hull, Que.

A federal civil servant with access to classified documents had allegedly agreed to supply the PQ spies with whatever they wanted, and twice they attempted to recruit members of the RCMP itself as informants. But what really convinced the Mounties that Canadian security was at stake, Potvin testified, were indications that foreign espionage agents had become involved in the PQ— and fears that military secrets had made their way into hostile hands via the separatist spy network.

Around 1970, an official in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s office asked the RCMP to investigate whether the PQ had received $350,000 from a foreign government. The money, according to the official, had been donated through two businesses operating in Quebec. Potvin added that Trudeau’s office “very strongly suggested that we verify this information.”

That was Potvin’s clearest explanation for the decision to break into the offices of Les Messageries Dynamiques, steal the computer tapes containing the PQ membership list, copy them and then return the tapes—all during the night of Jan. 8,1973. The RCMP had hoped that the list of more than 100,000 names would help them track down the foreign donation. But little was gleaned from the tapes, he said, and none of it was ever recorded in official RCMP files. Said Potvin: “The information obtained was not sufficiently valuable to risk exposing the source.”

Despite his French-Canadian name, Potvin was uncomfortable in French and he testified in English through an interpreter before the 11-member French-speaking jury. And it is perhaps a measure of Ottawa distrust in the early 1970s that RCMP authorities would

make an anglophone responsible for anti-separatist operations. In earlier testimony, former staff sgt. Gilbert Albert said the RCMP had decided not to inform Quebec provincial police of terrorist infiltration of the PQ because the Mounties believed the provincial force itself had been infiltrated. He claimed that a highly placed PQ member had been warned to flee the country before he could be arrested under the War Measures Act during the 1970 October Crisis. Still, because of the federal solicitor general’s refusal to allow 33 secret documents into evidence, Mountie testimony was more titillating than revealing.

It was not the first time that there have been reports of foreign intrigue and political spying involving the Quebec independence movement. During the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, French activities in Canada aroused federal wrath and in 1968 resulted in the expulsion of Philippe Rossillon. Canada’s new prime minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau, labelled Rossillon a “secret agent.” For his part, Rossillon claimed that as head of the Paris-based Committee for the Defence and Expan-

sion of the French Language he was merely in Canada to discuss children’s books, language teaching and French restaurants. But Rossillon was certainly close to de Gaulle and he was instrumental in arranging a $400,000 grant from France to the Moncton, N.B., French-language daily newspaper L’Evangeline. In 1971, France gave the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa $250,000 to promote the primacy of French. At the same time, there were rumors that France had slipped a $350,000 donation to the PQ. Similarly, stories of PQ intelligence operations in Ottawa have also been raised before, and Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau has acknowledged that he had a network of federal contacts while the party was in opposition. Trial testimony did not name the alleged PQ spymaster but revealed that his RCMP code name was “Brylcreem.”

There was an unusual third presence in the courtroom last week: a table of lawyers representing the solicitor general, each of them closely connected to the Liberal party and experienced in keeping politically delicate information away from public scrutiny. One of them, Allan Lutfy, is Trudeau’s former executive assistant. Another, Joe Nuss, was a law-school classmate of Privy Council Clerk Michael Pitfield, the senior federal official in charge of security matters. The third was Michel Robert, who co-ordinated and ensured federal control over the federalist groups that sprouted in Quebec after the PQ election in 1976.

All three men represented the Trudeau government during the inquiry into RCMP wrongdoing chaired by Judge David McDonald. When defence lawyers moved to introduce federal documents as evidence for the Mounties, one of the federal lawyers would jump to his feet to prevent it. They invoked a section of the Federal Court Act that allows Kaplan simply to suppress the introduction of documents on the basis of his own assessment of their potential harm to national security. Significantly, Kaplan did not use another section of the same law that would have allowed the judge to rule on their implications to national security.

If a mistrial had not been declared, the defence lawyers would likely have asked Judge Barrette-Joncas to direct a not-guilty verdict because Kaplan had denied them evidence essential to the defence. Said lawyer Campeau, whose two clients are still awaiting a trial date: “I think it has become quite obvious that these poor footsoldiers are pawns caught in a chess game between the federal and provincial governments.”

Robert Lewis