Hudson on the Hill
Two years have elapsed since Vice-Admiral Mark Norman was temporarily relieved as Vice Chief of the Defence Staff. The highly-regarded officer was being investigated on suspicion of leaking sensitive documents relating to the procurement of an interim supply ship for the Royal Canadian Navy. Initially replaced on a temporary basis by Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd, he was permanently removed from the post last June.
Project Resolve, the conversion of a 2009-vintage container ship by Davie Shipbuilding of Lauzon, Quebec, is long since complete and, after successful sea trials. The ship, named MV Asterix, is now a year into an initial five-year operational lease with a mixed naval and civilian crew. By all accounts, anecdotal and official, the $700-million project is full steam ahead and Seaspan Shipyards in Vancouver in getting on with constructing two purpose-built Protecteur-class joint support ships as per the National Shipbuilding Strategy.
In other words, things are moving along nicely.
That can’t be said about Norman’s case, which centres on a November 2015 cabinet meeting about Project Resolve. Norman did not attend the meeting but an RCMP search of digital files at Davie indicated that emails had been exchanged with a company executive.
The trial in the Ontario Court of Justice, which could see cabinet documents disclosed and senior government and military officials testifying, is to begin 19 August 2019 and is expected to last close to two months. With the next general election set for the 21st of October, the trial would parallel the campaign, raising the prospect of political embarrassment at the worst possible time.
The former Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper had fast-tracked the Davie proposal due to the urgent need of the support capability. Some months later, after the Liberals under Justin Trudeau had unseated the Conservatives, Halifax-based Irving Shipyard reportedly complained to several members of the new PM’s cabinet about Project Resolve.
Shortly after the 2015 election, the new President of the Treasury Board, Scott Brison, whose riding abuts the Halifax Regional Municipality, began questioning the Davie deal. So the Liberals sat on it for several weeks, relenting only after then Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard pointed out that Davie had already hired some 250 workers and had plans to hire 500 more. Quebec’s 40 Liberal MPs also had been feeling the heat.
Meanwhile, what happens if, as his many supporters believe, Norman did nothing wrong? Compensation? It would be clearly warranted.
The court had offered a trial start in May but Norman’s lead counsel, Marie Henein, requested more preparation time as the defence prepared pre-trial motions for hearings in December and March. The first dealt with disclosure of third-party material such as documents from various government departments while the second will be for a motion to stay the proceedings.
The trial dates would put the Norman case almost at the limit of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that an accused has the right to trial within 18 months of being charged. Norman was charged last March 9 so the 18-month mark will be September 9th. Henein won’t waive Norman’s right to a timely trial, nor should she.
She also has requested that cabinet secrecy rules be waived on all relevant documents, “not just the ones that they would like us to know about.” If the government balks, can Henein argue “abuse of process” and go after the prosecution for misusing the court? At the risk of sounding paranoic rather than just cynical, political pressures can’t be discounted.
Where abuse is demonstrated, the solution is usually a stay of proceedings. “Refusal to disclose relevant records might fit into this, but I’m not too clear on how that argument would go,” a noted prosecutor told FrontLine. “Cabinet privacy is likely something courts would probably want to enforce, absent compelling reasons otherwise.”
That clearly would be a problem for Norman, but anyone who has spent time on the Hill soon learns that cabinet secrecy is often applied to the relatively mundane.
– Hudson on the Hill
The role of Hudson is being filled by contributing editor Ken Pole.