Canada

Slings and arrows

LUKE FISHER April 7 1997
Canada

Slings and arrows

LUKE FISHER April 7 1997

Slings and arrows

Canada

LUKE FISHER

It was not one of Doug Young’s better weeks. The defence minister released his much-ballyhooed report to the Prime Minister on reforming Canada’s armed forces—to reactions that ranged from lukewarm to outright derision. Then two days later, any potential political capital that could have been gained from that initiative was torpedoed by a stunning court ruling on Young’s efforts to turn the page on the Somalia scandal. In British Columbia, Federal Court of Canada Justice Sandra Simpson said the defence minister’s decision to close down the Somalia inquiry by March 31 was “unlawful.” That brought cheers from John Dixon, who initiated the court action after being denied the chance to testify at the inquiry because of the March 31 deadline. “The judiciary didn’t disappoint me—it was a brilliant stroke,” said Dixon, who served as an assistant to former defence minister Kim Campbell in 1993. “The work of the commission is what is most important. I want my chance to take part in the inquiry discharging its full duty.”

In Dixon’s case, personal honor is involved. He and Campbell claim the former defence minister’s staff were not informed about the details of the March 16,1993, death of Somali teenager Shidane Arone at the hands of Canadian troops until the end of the month, when the news became public. Dixon has also alleged that senior defence department officials tried to cover up the murder. But some of those officials have told a different story, saying that Campbell’s

staff was told five days before the story appeared in the media. While Simpson did not touch on the substance of those claims, she obviously agreed with the essence of Dixon’s assertion—that the inquiry has been denied a chance to finish its work. The government’s actions, said Simpson, who will release her written verdict this week, had the “practical effect of prohibiting the commission of inquiry from reporting in full on its mandate and, in particular, from reporting about whether there was a coverup in Ottawa of the murder of Shidane Arone.”

Simpson did leave Young some manoeuvring room. The government, she said, has a choice: either lift the Somalia inquiry’s deadline—or rewrite its mandate to exclude those matters or events not yet examined. True to scrappy form, the defence minister indicated that he has a third option: appealing the Federal Court decision. And while Young also said that, pending consultation with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, he has not yet decided on the government’s response, he did indicate that he remains committed to closing down the inquiry and forcing it to deliver its report by June 30. “The commission has already had three extensions,” Young said, adding that he intends “to ensure the commission meets its reporting date.”

But critics of the government were re-energized by last week’s ruling and demanded that the commission immediately resume its hearings—regardless of what action Young decides to take. At week’s end, though, commission chairman Gilles Létourneau had

Doug Young weathers another bad week

not yet commented on the latest developments. A nononsense critic of both the government and the military, he has responded to Young’s decision to end the inquiry by saying that it scuttles any chance to reach conclusions about the behavior of Canadian Forces in Somalia. But Létourneau has come under fire, especially for his rough questioning of some witnesses— and for allowing the inquiry to become what some critics say is an overly detailed investigation that has gone far beyond the expectations of both the government and the department of national defence. And he has himself become the object of a court action: six weeks ago, the Federal Court of Canada supported the contention of Brig.-Gen. Ernest Beno that Létourneau was biased against him, and said the commission chairman could not participate in any discussions or findings against the general. That decision is now under appeal.

According to some observers, restarting the inquiry

..........could prove difficult. Bruce Carr-Harris, the lawyer

representing Beno, notes that the commission has already released some legal and clerical staff. “It is not as simple as opening their door,” says CarrHarris, who has said the commission should simply shut down.

Others noted that the continuing drama surrounding the inquiry— especially the hostility between the S defence minister and the govern% ment-appointed commissioners—

-L i$isI could have other farther-reaching i*. 4¡ ^ consequences. “Judges and gov-

. I ernments,” says University of Ottawa law professor Ed Ratushny,

“will think long and hard before entering into future inquiries.”

Still, last week’s Federal Court decision has given the opposition more ammunition to add to its stockpile for the coming federal election, expected in June. And if Young sticks to his guns and rewrites the inquiry’s mandate in order to enforce his decision to shut the hearings down, that move will likely be denounced on the campaign trail as part of a continuing effort to cover up what went wrong in Somalia— and the government’s response to the scandal. Young has announced an alternative to the inquiry: a Senate committee that would complete the probe into the Somalia mission. But Reform party defence critic Jim Hart dismisses that initiative as a whitewash. Hart concedes that the Somalia inquiry has dragged on for too long. But, he adds, given the millions already spent and the many questions left unanswered, the commission must be allowed to continue. “If not allowed to do its job,” he says, “there will be no way for Canadians to know the whole story.”

Lost in all of that was Young’s report to the Prime Minister. Based on commissioned studies by a panel of blue-ribbon experts, including military historian Jack Granatstein and former chief justice of Canada Brian Dickson, it recommends a number of reforms to Canada’s military. Among them: restrictions on the availability of alcohol to soldiers taking part in a mission, improved ethics and human rights training for officers and men, pay raises, and new powers and independence for military police. Young also said that the armed forces should have stable funding of $10 billion a year, and added that the military must not be allowed to suffer because of the scandalous actions of a handful of Canadian troops. “Unprecedented public scrutiny, along with a series of intolerable occurrences involving a limited number of armed forces personnel, should not be allowed to permanently tarnish a vital national institution,” he said in his report. “Fluff,” responded Alberta Reform MP Bob Mills. In the case of Canada’s trouble-prone military, there could, it seemed last week, be no neutral ground.

LUKE FISHER in Ottawa