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Daniel D. Veniez

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First on House of Commons Agenda? An Overdue Apology

Posted: 09/11/2012 2:18 pm

In 2008, RCMP deputy commissioner Barbara George was found in contempt of Parliament. This was an extraordinary move by the Commons. The committee was looking into allegations of mismanagement of the RCMP employees pension fund.

Yet in its final report following a year-long investigation, the Ontario Provincial Police offered praise for George's leadership to remedy historic administrative deficiencies within the insurance plans. But this report was not released until 2009, well after George's reputation, career and professional status had been demolished by the actions of parliamentarians and the related media circus, and George had been forced to take early retirement.

Barbara George did not lie and did not mislead. She was and is innocent of any wrongdoing and did not mislead the Commons committee. In fact, George did everything right. To this day -- five years later -- the public record says that Barbara George lied to Parliament. She didn't, and the House of Commons owes it to her and all Canadians to correct that record.

George brought the allegations of mismanagement and possible impropriety of the RCMP employees pension fund to the attention of then Commissioner, Giuliano Zaccardelli. It was George who immediately called for an internal RCMP audit and a subsequent investigation by the Ottawa Police Service. Zaccardelli acted immediately upon learning that there may be a problem with the pension plan, and mandated George to "fix human resources." Based on numerous independent audits and investigations, that is exactly what she did. Independent investigations from the Auditor General, Ottawa Police Service, Ontario Provincial Police, and David Brown, former head of the Ontario Securities Commission confirmed that.

The full House of Commons did not debate this matter. Barely two dozen MPs adopted the motion. In doing so, they found Barbara George, a deputy commissioner, member of the executive committee, and career officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with an impeccable track record, in contempt of the Parliament of Canada.

For a decorated senior officer of 30 years in the RCMP, there can be no worse and humiliating public flogging. It was a full frontal attack on George's honour and integrity, and one that she did not deserve. This "verdict" was reached without any basic understanding by her accusers, judge, and jury -- parliamentarians -- of the facts.

MPs got it wrong. Parliamentarians are human, too, and can make mistakes. The true measure of the character and decency of the most important democratic institution in Canada -- the House of Commons -- is its ability to acknowledge a mistake. In recent years, the Commons has done this on several important occasions, and all of them served to enhance its stature. We respect MPs for having issued apologies for the execution of Louis Riel, for the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, and for the horrific treatment of students of Indian residential schools.

One should bear in mind the politically charged context for the RCMP pension scandal. It was a minority parliament. Hand-to-hand combat for tactical political advantage and media attention was a daily ritual. The "game" was played with elbows high. At the time, MPs' sights were on former RCMP Commissioner Zaccardelli for various alleged management lapses within the RCMP. MPs were under considerable pressure to produce a head on a stick.

None of this can excuse the public assassination of Barbara George. Unrelenting partisanship, a dearth of rigor, and an absence of vigilant deliberation sealed her fate.

We live in a political culture where standards for due process, diligence, and common decency often play third fiddle to sensationalism. A profound miscarriage of justice has been perpetrated against Barbara George. She has done nothing wrong, and in fact she has done a great deal that was noble and right. Despite it all, she has been a tower of strength, dignity, intelligence, and grace.

As soon as the House of Commons resumes sitting, MPs should withdraw the contempt citation against George, and unreservedly apologize to her and her family for the grief and pain this has caused them. It is time to give Barbara George her reputation and life back.

And it is also time that Canadians ask some hard questions about the precarious condition of a precious constitutional right we all take for granted: the right to due process.

 

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