Canada

Under the gun

JOHN DeMONT October 5 1998
Canada

Under the gun

JOHN DeMONT October 5 1998

Under the gun

Canada

The APEC inquiry may become an outright crisis

JOHN DeMONT

Chris Considine is clear on one thing: he is not out to get the Prime Minister. “I do not have an agenda,” declares the head lawyer for the RCMP Public Complaints Commission’s inquiry into how the Mounties quashed student protests during the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Vancouver last fall. Impartial as he is, Considine could still give Jean Chrétien nightmares. His job, after all, is to methodically assemble the inside story behind one of the most-watched pieces of Canadian television news footage in recent memory—the RCMP’s now-infamous pepper-spraying and arrest of demonstrators at the University of British Columbia. And last week, as a flood of new documents and revelations raised troubling questions about the government’s involvement in the security debacle, it looked like Considine’s mounting pile of evidence had the potential to transform a political embarrassment for the Prime Minister into an outright crisis.

The Liberals may remain high in the public opinion polls, but they are hitting speed bumps with increasing regularity. And the succession of suspicious details about the Prime Minister’s alleged role in the APEC saga made for a particularly rocky resumption of Parliament last week after the summer recess. Hoping to counter the harsh impression that he cares more for the well-being of Asian dictators than Canadian students, Chrétien even issued a sortof apology, a rare enough thing for a prime minister who hates mea culpas. “I am sorry that some people had a problem with the police there,” he said in the House. “No one wished for that to happen and that is why there is an inquiry.”

But with the opposition hammering away on the issue and reporters poring over the

TAKING AIM AT THE FIREARMS REGISTRY

The day before, thousands of chanting, placard-waving gun owners stormed Parliament Hill to protest the imminent new national gun registry, Justice Minister Anne McLellan announced that the controversial system's start-up would be pushed back from Oct. 1 to the beginning of December. Rally organizers, already deeply suspicious of the federal government, claimed the decision proved their long-standing accusation that the registry was hopelessly disorganized. But McLellan said the request for the extension came from Ontario police chiefs who were worried that the original deadline was too soon to enter all the critical information needed for firearm owner background checks. Said McLellan: “I felt it was a reasonable request.” But reasonableness does not count for much in the superheated debate over Ottawa’s gun legislation. The registry in particular has been engulfed by controversy since 1995 when thenJustice Minister Allan Rock tabled Bill C-68. Among other measures, the Firearms Act

thousands of pages of internal documents unearthed by the complaints commission, each day seemed to bring new insights into the Mounties’ heavy-handed approach to security at the APEC summit. And, increasingly, Chrétien’s critics say the trail leads to the Prime Minister. As ammunition last week, they pointed to a handwritten note by a Privy Council Office official who said Chrétien would want to be “personally involved” in APEC security arrangements. Then, there were allegations by native Chief Gail Sparrow, who said she saw Chrétien barking orders at RCMP officers to prevent Asian leaders from seeing human rights protesters and signs at the summit. “He was constantly walking back and forth,” the chief of the Musqueam band in Vancouver told reporters, “talking to different people, security, nodding his head, giving arm signals, being very on top of things.”

requires the country’s roughly three million gun owners to get licences and register every firearm they own—some seven million in all. Tighter gun control, polls consistently show, is favored by the majority of Canadians—overwhelmingly so in urban ridings. Victims groups have lobbied hard for it. And police chiefs are anxious to see a registry that will enable officers about to enter a home to punch an address into a computer and find out if the person inside owns any guns.

Still, as last week demonstrated, the outcry against the tough new law is loud as ever. Four provinces—Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario—and both territories continue to challenge it in court on constitutional grounds. The 10,000 protesters who massed in Ottawa said the act will do little to prevent deaths from firearms, while entangling law-abiding gun owners in a thicket of regulations on registration, storage and transportation of firearms—all enforced by powerful search and seizure provisions. Some went even further, claiming the government's actions were part of a plan to confiscate guns from owners. “It’s clear this government is out to eliminate hunting and shooting sports,” says rally organizer AI Dorans. And opponents denounced as a tax grab the act’s cost to owners—new fees for registration, licences, acquisitions and ownership transfers.

Ottawa’s own costs are high. First estimated by Rock at about $85 million, the registry’s price tag has already passed $120 million, and some observers expect the government will soon be forced to spend hundreds of millions more on computer upgrades. A defiant McLellan, however, ruled out taking another look at the new system. “The debate is over,” she declared. “Canadians have decided that they believe in gun control.” But as the clamor against the registry echoed throughout the capital,

it was clear that not all Canadians agree.

JOHN DeMONT in Ottawa

That is not the Chrétien Canadians are used to seeing. Suddenly, a prime minister who depends upon his folksy, down-home style for so much of his popularity is on the defensive. And things are likely to get worse when the commission inquiry resumes in Vancouver on Oct. 5 before a three-member panel. But, in truth, the tribunal seems like an unlikely venue for political intrigue. Even Shirley Heafey, chairwoman of the complaints commission, notes that her organization has heard just 19 cases in the past 11 years, “none of them anywhere as high profile” as the APEC furor. And critics such as NDP MP Svend Robinson say getting to the bottom of what actually happened during the APEC summit and the run-up to it seems beyond the powers of a commission that reports directly to the federal solicitor general. “This inquiry goes to the very core of the government,” Robinson declares. “How can it be impartial?”

But the commission, created in 1986 after a royal

commission called for a new process for making the RCMP and its members accountable to the public, considers itself independent—and its members bristle at questions about their impartiality. The panel examining the APEC question was formed last February and must technically confine its recommendations to the way the Mounties conducted themselves during the APEC meeting. But it still has clout—its broad powers to investigate, summon witnesses and hear evidence extend beyond even those of a regular court of law. Given that, the inquiry will undoubtedly shed some light on the Prime Minister’s role in the affair.

Moreover, if personal background is any indication, the three panel members have little obvious reason to favor Chrétien or his government. Chairman Gerald Morin is a Cree lawyer and native activist from Prince Albert, Sask. John Wright, the only panelist to have been an active politician, once ran (unsuccessfully) for the NDP in the Yukon. A longtime mediator and labor arbitrator, he now chairs the Yukon’s Workers’ Compensation Board. The lone British Columbian on the panel is another aboriginal, Vina Starr, a member of the Kitamaat nation, whose law practice is based in a coastal village of the same name.

Inquiry lawyer Considine, the greatgrandson of Sir Joseph Pope, a close confidant and adviser of Sir John A. Macdonald, has also shown a willingness to lock horns with Ottawa. Just 44, the lean, energetic Victoria lawyer likes to race his 12-m sloop in his free time, serves as an honorary consul for the Kingdom of Nepal and is such an avid mountain climber that he was a member of the base support team during a 1988 Canadian assault on Mount Everest. He faced off against Ottawa in his most famous case, representing terminally ill Vancouver Islander Sue Rodriguez in the Supreme Court of Canada in her plea for the right to an assisted suicide—a case that won him recognition as an ardent advocate of individual rights. This time, he stresses, his role is very different. “I am not an advocate for either side,” he explained. “My job is to act in the public interest, to remain neutral and to find out what happened and why.”

He and fellow counsel Kevin Gillett are tackling the job with zeal. So far, they have unearthed thousands of pages of documents and amassed 60 hours of video recordings of events surrounding the summit. Chrétiens office has not exactly bent over backwards to help the probe. Jean Carle, the former chief of operations in the Prime

Opposition critics say the trail leads to Chrétien’s doorstep

Minister’s Office, told Considine he had no written records of his activities to hand over—a revelation that caused New Democratic Leader Alexa McDonough to accuse the ex-Chrétien aide of shredding incriminating documents. Considine is unwilling to go that far. But he has contacted the government’s lawyers “and asked them to take another look throughout all levels of government to make sure they hadn’t missed anything.”

The parade of witnesses scheduled to appear before the inquiry is clearly beyond the government’s control. To date, some 130 individuals have been called. Chrétien has said he sees no reason to testify because, he says, he never spoke directly with the RCMP about security at the summit. But Considine is offering no guarantees. “If, as we go through the evidence and we agree that the PM has relevant information, then he will be called on to take the witness stand,” he told Maclean’s last week.

Barring the Prime Minister’s appearance, the most dramatic witness is expected to be Carle. The husky, intense party operative, who was once an assistant to John Turner, switched his loyalties to Chrétien in the late 1980s. When Chrétien led the Liberals to victory in 1993, Carle became his director of operations, but was always much more than a hired hand. Carle has often been described as being “like a son” to Chrétien, at one time having lived in the leader’s home. His devotion to Chrétien also earned him a reputation for flexing his muscles on behalf of his boss. At the APEC gathering, he lived up to that billing, at one point threatening to remove the credentials of a female journalist after she tried to question the Prime Minister during a photo opportunity with South Korean President Kim Young Sam.

Did Carle go too far in Vancouver—as even some Liberals have speculated? His turn before the commission may provide some answers. Earlier this year, Carle left Chrétien’s office for a job at the federally owned Business Development Bank of Canada in Montreal, where he is senior vicepresident of corporate affairs. Requests for an interview from Maclean’s last week were referred to his Ottawa lawyer, who did not call back. But, asked about his hardball reputation during an earlier interview with Maclean’s, he responded: “I had a job to do. Sometimes I had to be tough. But I was always up front: I never stabbed people in the back.” The question now, however, is how up front Jean Carle—and perhaps his boss—will be about what really happened at the APEC summit. □