OTTAWA — Federal officials have been collecting thousands of documents — including cabinet secrets — requested by suspended Vice-Admiral Mark Norman’s lawyers largely on their own, an Ottawa court heard Wednesday.
Two months ago, Norman’s lawyers gave the court a list of federal records they say are needed to ensure their client receives a fair trial, and they accused the government of having “cherry-picked” information disclosed in the senior military officer’s breach of trust case.
Many of the documents relate to a $700-million contract with a Quebec shipbuilding company to refit a civilian ship into a support vessel for the navy. The deal was negotiated by the Harper Conservatives in 2015 and signed by the newly elected Trudeau Liberals.
Norman was suspended in January 2017 as the military’s second-in-command and charged with one count of breach of trust in connection with the alleged leak of cabinet secrets around the shipbuilding project. He has denied any wrongdoing and vowed to fight the charge.
During the first day of a five-day pre-trial hearing, court heard from Department of Justice paralegal Patsy Bradley that individual departments — and in some cases certain officials or “custodians” of the relevant files — were responsible for finding documents requested by Norman’s lawyers.
“If they were a key custodian, it was up to them to conduct a search,” Bradley, who is responsible for co-ordinating the government’s response to the document request, testified under cross-examination by defence lawyer Marie Henein.
The documents requested by Norman’s team touch on seven departments, including the Defence Department and the Privy Council Office, the government’s top department. Norman’s lawyers have also asked for records from the Prime Minister’s Office and Treasury Board President Scott Brison.
Bradley said she did follow up with departments to see how they searched for relevant documents, and at one point asked the Defence Department to refine its process. But aside from the Treasury Board, there was no independent or third-party vetting of their responses.
“If they have told me that they have done an exhaustive search, I trust that they are telling the truth,” she said, noting that the requested documents are housed in numerous databases and — in some cases — inside government filing cabinets.
The battle for access to those documents is expected to be the focal point throughout the five-day pre-trial hearing, which is scheduled to run through next week. Norman’s breach of trust case officially goes to trial next August.
Earlier in the day, Henein told the court that she had tried on numerous occasions to work with federal lawyers to narrow the search and find documents most relevant to Norman’s case, but the Justice Department had refused to co-operate.
“Nobody wants a 100,000-document dump,” she told Justice Heather Perkins-McVey. “We really are interested in focusing on issues that are relevant to this case.”
The Justice Department has either ignored her requests or dragged its feet, she added, with government lawyers saying it will take months to collect the documents Norman’s team has requested and more resources aren’t available to speed things up.
Henein also said that several people — including Liberals and Conservatives — had reached out to her office to say they have turned over information relevant to the case, but that the Justice Department had not notified her of their existence.
She called efforts to deal with the Justice Department “a game of cat and mouse throughout.”
Justice Department lawyer Robert MacKinnon rejected Henein’s allegation, saying there was no “malintent” before Bradley was called to the stand.
Government lawyers have said that more than 130,000 documents have been gathered to answer the defence lawyers’ requests, though Bradley said the final number will almost certainly be much smaller once they are processed and reviewed by the different departments.
Some documents have already been collected, and will be the subject of arguments over the coming days on whether they are relevant to the case — and whether they should be released to Norman’s lawyers and the public.
But identifying, collecting and vetting all of the documents requested by Norman’s lawyers could take several months, Bradley said. Exactly how long? Perhaps until February or March, though she said she would have a better idea at the end of this month.
— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
‘Freedom Convoy’ organizers’ trial on scheduled break until after Thanksgiving
Tamara Lich arrives for her trial at the courthouse in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Lich and fellow Freedom Convoy organizer Chris Barber are charged with mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
The trial of “Freedom Convoy” organizers Tamara Lich and Chris Barber has begun a scheduled break that will continue until after Thanksgiving.
The court finished hearing the testimony of Serge Arpin, the chief of staff to Ottawa’s former mayor, on Friday.
He spoke about how the city responded to the protest that overwhelmed the downtown core for three weeks in early 2022.
Arpin also testified about his interactions with convoy organizers while working out a deal with former mayor Jim Watson to move big-rig trucks out of residential neighbourhoods.
The evidence was originally due to be wrapping up by this point in the trial, which had been scheduled to last 16 days, but Arpin is just the fourth witness to finish his testimony.
The trial was expected to hear from 22 witnesses, leaving the court to ponder how much more time will be needed to reach the finish line.
Justice Heather Perkins-McVey, who is overseeing the trial, has identified several dates in October and November.
Lawrence Greenspon, the lawyer representing Lich, said he does not want to set new court dates until the Crown has established a new, more accurate time estimate for its case.
As of Friday, the trial is expected to resume Oct. 11.
Lich and Barber are charged with mischief and counselling others commit offences such as mischief and intimidation for their role in organizing and prolonging the demonstration.
The defence questioned Arpin Friday about how city council and staff attempted to put an end the protest. As the mayor’s chief of staff, Arpin told the court he sat in on every council meeting.
He was grilled about a bylaw change on Feb. 9 last year that banned idling in a vehicle unless the temperature fell at or below -15 C. The bylaw originally allowed idling if the temperature was below 5 C.
“City council … was attempting to freeze out the truckers and their families,” Greenspon told the court.
Arpin said he believed the intention was to bring the demonstration to an end.
Arpin was also involved in the deal between Watson, Lich and other organizers to move trucks out of residential neighbourhoods and onto Wellington Street, in front of Parliament Hill.
He texted back and forth with the convoy organizers’ lawyer Keith Wilson on Feb. 14 and 15 in an exchange that was filed as evidence in the trial.
The texts suggest city staff did not give protest organizers or their lawyers a heads-up about plans to file a court injunction against demonstrators who violated city bylaws.
“Just so you know, it is highly irregular for the city’s lawyers to have done this without providing us lawyers here with notice,” Wilson wrote to Arpin on Feb. 15.
“This could change everything.”
Arpin told Wilson he was under the impression they knew about the court filing, but said in court that he never informed them himself until after the injunction was granted by a judge.
Lawyers representing the convoy organizers were not given an opportunity to oppose the application in court at the time.
The deal between Lich and the mayor fell apart later that day when police would no longer allow trucks to move closer to Parliament.
Arpin confirmed the police service underwent a change in command that day as a result of the police chief’s resignation.
He apologized to Wilson at the time, the text messages show.
“Our goal has always been de-escalation and I know you share this goal,” he texted to Wilson on the 16th.
The Crown hopes to pick up its case in October with eight local witnesses from Ottawa who lived or worked downtown during the Freedom Convoy protest.
Lich and Barber have already admitted that there was mischief taking place in the protest zone.
Greenspon has argued that the testimony of those witnesses would be akin to victim impact statements, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to be heard during the trial.
B.C. premier suspects Ottawa holding back information about foreign interference
A flock of birds flies past as Moninder Singh, front right, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council (BCGC), waits to speak to reporters outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, September 18, 2023, where temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar was gunned down in his vehicle while leaving the temple parking lot in June. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
British Columbia Premier David Eby said he “strongly” suspects that the federal government is holding back information that could help the province protect its residents who have connections to India from foreign interference.
Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc has reached out, saying Ottawa wants to make sure the provincial government has the details it needs to keep B.C. residents safe, “but there has not been good information sharing,” the premier said Friday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed in Parliament on Monday that Canadian intelligence services were investigating “a potential link” between the Indian government and the fatal shooting of Sikh advocate Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C., last June.
In response to the killing, Eby said on Friday that the priority should be protecting the criminal prosecution process so people can be held accountable for the killing.
But on the broader issue of ensuring community safety, he said there’s “a long way to go to share that information.”
Eby said people in B.C. have been “feeling pressure from India,” and he believes Ottawa has information through agencies including the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that could help respond to foreign interference.
The premier’s initial statement in response to Trudeau’s announcement called on Ottawa to “share all relevant information” related not only to foreign interference, but also to “transnational organized crime threats” in the province.
He said Friday that the prime minister had reached out before telling Parliament about the probe based on “credible” information about the potential link between India and Nijjar’s killing.
Eby accepted Trudeau’s offer for a briefing by CSIS, but everything the premier knows about the situation is “in the public realm,” he said.
“I expressed my frustration in the meeting with the CSIS director about our inability to get more concrete information,” Eby said.
He made the remarks during a media question-and-answer session after addressing local politicians at the Union of BC Municipalities conference.
Eby said he understands there may need to be reform around the law governing CSIS in order for the agency to share the kind of information he’s looking for.
“If that’s what’s required, let’s make it happen, because the only way that we’re going to make traction on this is by the federal government trusting the provincial government with information and being able to act on it in our local communities,” he said.
Nijjar was a prominent supporter of the Khalistan separatism movement that advocates for a Sikh homeland in India’s Punjab province. He had been working to organize an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora on independence from India at the time of his killing.
India designated Nijjar as a terrorist in 2020, an accusation he had denied.
Canada and India expelled each other’s diplomats in the fallout of Trudeau’s announcement, and India has halted visa services in Canada.
India’s government has denied the accusation as “absurd and motivated.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2023.
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