CANADA

Ministers in contempt

MARC CLARK January 18 1988
CANADA

Ministers in contempt

MARC CLARK January 18 1988

Ministers in contempt

CANADA

Debora Bhatnagar never realized what a problem it would be to bring her husband to Canada until she tried. She had met Ajay Bhatnagar, an Indian citizen, in 1980 while he was visiting relatives in Canada. They married that June. Then, Ajay returned to India—and the next month Debora filed an application with federal immigration officials, asking them to let him return to Canada as a landed immigrant. But more than five years elapsed before federal officials grudgingly allowed Ajay to return to Canada—and only after Debora had taken the case to court and a judge ordered officials to process her application. They failed to produce documents from India by a scheduled hearing date in September, 1985. As a result, three Federal Court of Appeal judges last week convicted both External Affairs Minister Joe Clark and former immigration minister Flora MacDonald of contempt of court.

The ruling—overturning a 1986 Federal Court judgment in favor of the ministers—was unprecedented. Clayton Ruby, Debora Bhatnagar’s lawyer, said that it was the first time that a Canadian court had held ministers in contempt because of the actions of their officials. He added that the ruling reinforces the traditional concept of ministerial responsibility—that ministers can be held to account for the actions of their departments. Said Ruby: “Ordinary people will benefit in that ministers will be held personally accountable.”

The Bhatnagars’ difficulties began when immigration officers decided in 1980 that their union was a marriage of convenience to secure landed-immigrant status for Ajay. As a result, officials refused for five years to process the application. When they were ordered to produce documents in 1985, they missed the deadline. Said Paul Frazer, an aide to Clark: “There were papers misplaced, mail bags missed, documents would go to the wrong office. It was one of those paper chases that just went wrong.”

The consequences of the ruling for Clark and MacDonald, now communications minister, were unclear at week’s end. Federal officials said that they might appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. But if last week’s judgment stands, the ministers could be ordered to apologize for their department’s actions—or even face fines.

MARC CLARK in Ottawa with

CLAIRE FRASER