Peter Blaikie

Peter Blaikie

As a general rule, I don’t comment on political affairs in Canada. However, as we are only a few months away from a federal election, and as the Liberal government’s treatment of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman has been a disgraceful outrage, I am taking this opportunity to express an opinion.

In the voting booth, Canadians make their decisions based on a variety of factors. I have never had great expectations as to benefits bestowed by governments. Mostly, I have a desire to see them waste fewer of my tax dollars. It is certainly legitimate for others to take a different view. Given my modest expectations, I am never surprised when newly-elected governments break their campaign promises. What I do expect, however, especially from a government which made commitments to openness and transparency central to its campaign, is that it be open and transparent with Canadians and accept responsibility for its worst failures and errors. On this score, the current Liberal government in Ottawa has a dismal record.

As far as I’m concerned, in respect of both the SNC Lavalin fiasco and the Vice-Admiral Norman case, this government has irredeemably blotted its copybook. It has been arrogant, ruthless, hypocritical, incompetent, and almost certainly dishonest.

For those not familiar with the details of the Norman case, some background may be necessary. In April 2015, it was clear to the Harper government that the Royal Canadian Navy needed at least one new supply ship in the immediate future. Both existing vessels, which supply food, fuel, ammunition and other essentials to ships at sea, had been put out of commission, one following a collision, the other by a fire.

Broadly, two options were available. The first was to follow the usual procurement practice of calling for public tenders from the few available Canadian shipyards. The other was to accept a proposal from Davie Shipyard, in Quebec, to convert an existing commercial vessel. Jason Kenney, who was then Harper’s Minister of Defence, was strongly in favour of the Davie proposal, as was Norman. Not everyone in the military was in agreement with this view.

When the Trudeau government came to power, there were those in the cabinet who wanted to cancel the Davie contract and reopen the process to other bidders. Inevitably, the Liberal approach was quickly leaked to journalists and the government reversed course, confirming the Davie contract. The converted ship, the MV Asterix, was delivered on time and on budget, perhaps a historically unique result.

Now the plot thickens. Angry at the plethora of leaks, hardly a historically unique result in Ottawa, the government ordered an investigation. It appears that dozens of possible leakers were investigated and, for reasons which are not clear, the initial decision was taken to target only Vice-Admiral Norman. A process which began more than two years ago came to an end on May 8, 2019, when the Crown abandoned its prosecution, acknowledging that it had “no reasonable chance of obtaining a conviction”.

Let me now explain why I consider the behaviour of the Liberal government to have been arrogant, ruthless, hypocritical, incompetent and almost certainly dishonest. Liberal cabinet ministers and their minions have been tripping over themselves to declare that there had never been any political interference in the decision to charge Mark Norman or in the Crown’s decision to stay the proceedings. In a pig’s eye! Recently, on a single day in the House of Commons, the Attorney General and the Minister of Defence were in a heroic competition to see who could use the word “independently” more often to describe all the decisions taken in the case. As Gertrude the Queen declares in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”.

Ask yourself whether this counts as political interference or is merely incompetence. On April 6, 2017, a year before any charge was laid, the Prime Minister, in a public setting, talking about the investigation into the leaks said, “This will likely end up before the courts”. Almost a year later, at a town hall meeting, again before Norman had been charged, the Prime Minister predicted that Norman would go to trial. Apparently, this could not be fairly described as political interference.

How is this for hypocrisy? Justin Trudeau is the country’s apologist-in-chief. To the extent that one believes in governmental apologies for long ago historical events (which his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, most categorically did not), the Prime Minister’s apologies for Canada’s refusal, just before the outbreak of the Second World War to accept some 900 Jewish refugees from Germany; for Canada’s refusal, in 1914, to accept more than 300 Sikh refugees who arrived in Vancouver on the Komagata Maru; for Canada’s policy of placing its aboriginal youth in residential schools; and for Canada’s mishandling of the Inuit tuberculosis epidemic in the 1940s and beyond, are entirely justified. They were all very dark moments in Canada’s history. How, then, does one explain that, after his government had sought to destroy not only the career, but the life, of a dedicated naval officer, Justin Trudeau, together with his Minister of Defence, Harjit Sajjan, scuttled out of the House of Commons just before Members of Parliament voted unanimously to apologize to Mark Norman? A lack of decency? A lack of courage?

On January 9, 2017, seven RCMP officers arrived at Norman’s house with a search warrant, almost a year before he was charged, spent six hours searching and left with computers, cell phones and iPads. That same day, Norman was summoned to the offices of General Jonathan Vance, Canada’s senior military officer. With no explanation as to why Vance was taking the step, he advised Norman that he was in possession of “compelling, sobering and frightening” information about the Vice-Admiral, and that he was “in for the fight of his life”.

A few days later, on January 13, at a second meeting between Vance and Norman, the former delivered a letter in which he stated that he, Vance, “had lost confidence in Norman’s ability to command”. Once again, Norman was given no explanation as to why this step had been taken.

How is this for hypocrisy? After having tossed Norman under the supply ship, following the Crown’s abandoning its prosecution; Vance had these words for Mark Norman. “He is a highly experienced and successful officer who has had and continues to have the trust of senior military and civilian leadership.” Has General Vance been dismissed or even reprimanded? Not a bit of it. A few days after the prosecution collapsed, the Prime Minister gave the general a salary increase.

How is this for ruthlessness? Although it is usual under such circumstances for the government to fund the legal fees of the person charged, when Norman applied to have his legal fees covered, his request was denied. Fortunately for him, he had the good sense to retain the formidable Marie Henein, who came to public prominence as defence counsel for Jian Ghomeshi. Not surprisingly, Norman’s legal bills totalled well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. He was forced to mortgage his home. Fortunately, as the public was skeptical of the government’s case from the start, a significant sum was raised in a defence fund initiated by a retired army officer.

Only after the charges were stayed, the government, through the Minister of Defence, agreed to cover Norman’s legal fees. It would appear that, somewhere in Ottawa, a trace of decency exists. However, with yet another example of hypocrisy, the Minister of Defence acknowledged that he felt “really badly” about Norman’s treatment, but that “you have to respect the independence of the process”.

How is this for incompetence? Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the criminal justice process, even if that has been limited to watching Law and Order on television, knows that, at some stage early in the process, the prosecution will interview the accused.

Since General Vance provided Norman with no explanation as to why he was being relieved of command, one might reasonably assume that he never asked the Vice-Admiral for his side of the story. Indeed, he never did.

One might reasonably assume that, during its investigation, the RCMP would have interviewed Norman. They never did.

One might reasonably assume that, as they prepared for trial, the Crown’s lawyers, acting for the prosecution, would have been curious to speak with the Vice-Admiral. They never did.

As key events which were the bases of the charges against Norman took place while the Stephen Harper government was in power, one might reasonably assume that both the RCMP and the Crown would have interviewed not only Jason Kenney, but Prime Minister Harper himself, together with other officials involved in the decision to have Davie build the supply ship. They never did. Their “independence” led them to interview only those who sought to prosecute the Vice-Admiral.

If you find it difficult to accept this level of incompetence from those whose salaries you are paying, and who are, at least in theory, your servants, you are not alone. As I wrote earlier, Mark Norman’s decision to engage Marie Henein was very wise. For almost a year, in countless courtroom appearances, Henein and her associate, Christine Mainville, faced up to seven Crown attorneys. From the start, and as the results proved, the odds were even.

“One courageous witness testified that he heard a

senior army officer boasting about hiding documents.”

While we may never understand precisely why the charges were abandoned, we do know that the decision was taken, “independently” by the Crown, not as a result of its work or that of the RCMP, but because the Henein team did the work which they should have done. They interviewed all the Conservatives who had relevant information, obtained from representatives of the Conservative government all the significant documents, and put together a package of incontrovertible evidence that Mark Norman had done nothing criminal, illegal or wrong. Nevertheless, despite conceding that there was no longer “a reasonable prospect of conviction”, the lead prosecutor, Barbara Mercier couldn’t resist the gratuitous remark that some of Admiral Norman’s actions had been “inappropriate and secretive”.

How is this for hypocrisy? Notwithstanding a performance which was judged, by every independent observer, to have been a biased shambles, the RCMP, following the decision on May 8, declared, “Throughout the course of this criminal investigation, the RCMP (…) have conducted a thorough, independent (my italics) and highly professional investigation.”

More recently the current Minister of Justice, David Lametti, in addition to defending the RCMP and the Justice Department, had the chutzpah to blame the Harper Conservatives for the Vice-Admiral’s ordeal. “The Conservatives seem to have had evidence that they only recently gave over. But we all have obligations to produce evidence that is relevant.” Presumably, in Lametti’s mind, there was an image of penitent Conservatives, full brief cases in hand, lined up at the offices of the RCMP and the Department of Justice begging to be allowed to help.

During an entire year, at every stage of the proceedings, the Crown fought all attempts by Norman’s attorneys to obtain documents required for his defence. The Crown first argued cabinet confidentiality, then shifted to “public interest privilege”. One courageous witness testified that he heard a senior army officer boasting about hiding documents. General Vance and other senior officials took no notes at critical meetings, including those with the Prime Minister. Another officer claimed that they used a code for Vice-Admiral Norman, to protect documents. One sixty-page memo from Michael Wernick to the Prime Minister was fully blacked out. At the end of almost every courtroom argument Justice Heather Perkins-McVay, who once declared herself “baffled” by the Crown’s manoeuvres, decided in favour of Norman.

One would like to say; “These are not our values; this is not who we are”. One would hope that the same is true of the Kafkaesque suffering endured by Vice-Admiral Mark Norman at the hands of his government. In the face of that same government’s performance in the SNC Lavalin debacle, how confident can we be? My view is not very.

Peter Blaikie is a successful attorney, business executive, opinion leader and world traveller. He has been active in politics, serving as a past president of the Federal Conservative Party. (Then the Progressive Conservative Party) 

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