I’ve got my journalistic obsessions, Lord knows. But the notion that Bill Blair, the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, is in way over his head was not something I brought to this game. It’s a learned response. Lately it’s kind of getting locked in.
First there was the federal government’s response to April’s mass murder in Nova Scotia, which amounted to three months of silence and stonewalling, a botched announcement of an “independent review” that would have no power in law to compel testimony, and a hasty retreat after three days because basically everyone in Nova Scotia was saying in the newspapers what hundreds of them had been trying to tell Blair in private for months.
The hallmarks of this farce were unfamiliar but, in hindsight, look characteristic. A long period of bland assurance that all is well in hand. (“We’ll put the processes in place to make sure that those answers not only are obtained for Canadians, but done in a way which is trustworthy,” Blair told Maclean’s in June. “It’s not an easy thing to do, but that’s my job.” Nice touch, that last bit.) The belated realization that actually, freaking nothing is happening. And finally, the headline-driven climb-down, accompanied by assurances that the minister was on top of things all along.
Fast forward to the strange case of Anthony Doob, emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Toronto. He’s 77, he’s in the Order of Canada, he’s one of the most-cited criminologists in the field. Last summer Blair’s predecessor Ralph Goodale put Doob in charge of a distinguished panel to monitor changes to solitary confinement in Canada’s federal prisons.
The change was part of Bill C-83, and it amounted to replacing “segregation units,” where inmates could be holed up alone for up to 22 hours a day if they were deemed dangerous to other prisoners or if they were under investigation for disciplinary infraction, with “structured intervention units (SIUs),” where they could be kept for up to 20 hours a day. Under the new law, summarized with its limitations in this article, inmates would also be given regular “meaningful human contact” with a counsellor, elder or other helpful person.
It’s a very modest improvement to treatment that’s been found systematically damaging to inmates’ prospects of rehabilitation—and, in some cases, to their lives. A succession of courts have found disciplinary segregation violated inmates’ Charter rights. Finally a B.C. Supreme Court justice gave the feds a year to fix the system.
The stakes were high. Section B of the court’s decision begins with a long discussion of whether extended solitary confinement constitutes torture. The judge sounds inclined to conclude it does.
So Bill C-83 was the Trudeau government’s coerced response to a legal obligation, not a spontaneous decision for reform. But Goodale appointed Doob and seven colleagues because he wanted to make sure the reform was working. The SIU review panel “will play an essential role in ensuring that the new SIU system achieves our goal of humane and effective corrections,” Goodale said then. He told the panel to “give ongoing feedback” to Correctional Service Canada during its one-year mandate—and to “alert the Minister directly” about any “problems or concerns” with the new system.
On Tuesday of this week, Professor Doob announced the panel no longer exists and that it had achieved nothing because Correctional Service Canada gave it no usable information and Bill Blair did nothing to help when Doob tried to tell him what was happening.
Justin Ling has reported on this over at Vice, and it’s been reported elsewhere, but I want to emphasize the Kafkaesque absurdity of the situation.
Usually when this government screws up, its defenders look around for somebody they can designate an outsider, spoiler, saboteur or wrecker, somebody who doesn’t understand the Trudeau government’s beautiful mission and who seeks to discredit it. A Jody Wilson-Raybould, a Jesse Brown, a Postmedia. That’s hard in this case because every player in this drama was appointed by this government: Blair, CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly, Doob and his fellow panelists.
From Doob’s final report (“We have essentially not been able to examine any aspect of the SIUs during their first 7-8 months of operation”) and a telephone conversation I had with Doob on Friday, the short version of what happened is as follows.
In mid-November, the panel told CSC it would need a set of information on every inmate transferred to an SIU: the inmate’s case history, the reasons for transfer, the maximum number of hours in the SIU in a 24-hour period, the average number of hours of confinement per day over the length of the stay, and so on. It was a long list of indicators, but that’s why Doob sent the list to CSC before the SIUs even opened in late November, and it’s why he asked for the first batch of data to be sent in February. This would take time. Updates would follow every two months.
The information the panel requested was “all things that were administrative in nature,” Doob said. “It’s stuff that is almost certainly in their files somewhere.” If anything he asked for wasn’t available, he’d adjust. “I’ve been working with quantitative data for 50 years. This is the sort of thing that happens all the time. And you don’t worry about it.”
The Correctional Service gave no hint that any of this would be a problem.
In mid-February Doob contacted the agency to begin figuring out how the data would be transmitted to the panel, how inmate confidentiality could be respected, and so on. This is three months after he told them what he wanted and five months after the responsible cabinet minister called his work “essential.” Doob’s contact at CSC said the agency hadn’t yet decided whether it would give the panel any of the information it had requested.
This turn of events “came to the panel as a complete surprise,” Doob wrote mildly in his final report. After some back-and-forth to insist on the importance of the panel’s request and gauge the agency’s willingness to block, he wrote to CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly in mid-March—and to Bill Blair at the end of March. From Kelly, he received no reply. Not until she saw her name cc’d on the complaint to Blair. That got a request from her for a meeting. But it took most of April for the meeting to happen. Finally in late May, CSC delivered data to Doob.
That data was unusable. Instead of a single spreadsheet with comparable indicators for every inmate, there were more than 900 spreadsheets. And Doob quickly discovered that depending on the criterion, the number of cases varied. Which meant that there was no way to compare among cases or between criteria. “It was a pile of crap,” he told me. Remember, this is a guy who’s spent decades in the field.
Doob’s dismayed response led to CSC, an organization with 18,000 employees, coughing up one (1) data analyst to work with him on cleaning up the data. His report is very complimentary about this data analyst, but after she’d worked for six weeks, he sent CSC a report advising the agency that he had no systematic analysis because he’d been given no useful data for most of his panel’s time on this earth.
CSC received that report on July 21. By an agreement Doob had reached with the agency when his panel was formed, it had three weeks to respond. After three weeks it hadn’t responded. After three weeks and six days, Doob received a letter from a senior deputy commissioner saying, in effect, sorry for the crummy data, we’re in the process of transferring our data collection from a platform that no longer works to one that doesn’t work yet. On the bright side, CSC promised monthly updates. On the downside, members of Doob’s panel were reaching the end of their one-year mandates, a couple at a time because they hadn’t even been appointed at the same time.
On Tuesday, Doob sent Ottawa reporters his final report with a cover-letter broadside, via the office of Kim Pate, a (Trudeau-appointed!) Ontario Senator with a long career in criminal-justice reform. “Our panel no longer exists,” he wrote. And it wasn’t just a problem that it wasn’t given the information it needed. It’s a problem because the agency that jails a huge prison population seems uninterested in how they’re doing. “CSC is telling us that it does not have systematic information on the operation of its Structured Intervention Units and apparently never made the gathering of this information a priority.”
Remember Bill Blair? Remember how he had nothing to say when Doob warned him through official channels in March? He did now, once Doob made his concerns public. “There have been news reports on the Correctional Services of Canada’s work with an Implementation Advisory Panel,” a statement from Blair’s office read.
“It is amusing to me that they don’t even acknowledge that these ‘news reports’ come from a report (from our panel) that CSC had for weeks,” Doob writes in an annotated version of Blair’s statement that Doob has been sending reporters.
The statement rehashes some of the background of the panel and adds: “We have dedicated extra resources to expedite this request.” Doob’s response: “CSC itself, for its own purposes, should want to know how the SIUs are operating. They shouldn’t have to be pushed into getting these data by an independent panel. They should want to know. Hence the implication that we are requiring them to dedicate ‘extra resources’ is, quite frankly, offensive.”
At midweek, Doob received a telephone call from Blair. “He said to me, ‘I’d like you to do this job,'” said Doob, who had written to Blair five months earlier warning that he was not being permitted to do his job.
Doob still thinks it’s worth knowing whether a court-mandated and hastily-developed reform is achieving its ends. He still thinks somebody should do the work he tried to do. Will he, now? “I told [Blair] that a necessary condition would be that I actually have the data in front of me,” he says. Promises of data later aren’t enough.
But that’s what Doob needs before he’ll even consider doing for Blair the work Goodale assigned him, the work he’s spent all of 2020 trying to do. “That’s the necessary condition. I don’t know what the sufficient conditions would be. If they even exist.”
A few concluding thoughts.
Once at a public event, I met a staffer from the Prime Minister’s Office I didn’t know yet. This person worked on files related to science and research policy, a longstanding preoccupation of mine. “When you tweet about science policy, I wind up working all weekend,” this person said. Sure, it was flattering, and I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a rigorously truthful or complete statement. But it also struck me as a little odd. I’m not smart enough to write anything on science policy that I haven’t heard from researchers. Why would my tweet be the thing that provokes overtime shifts? Why not the scientists?
I thought about this conversation when I learned that a report from a duly-constituted government-appointed panel isn’t enough to get the responsible minister involved in the file—but a headline in Vice is. Blair’s call was “a response to what’s in the media,” Doob told me, “not to what I’ve sent the government.”
This is what many people who work with this government tell me. Public servants, consultants, NGOs. Official channels are useless. Process is window dressing. This government consults but doesn’t listen, and whatever the plan is, it’s never as useful to know the plan as it is to have the personal phone numbers of a half-dozen senior staffers so you can text one of them and urge an improvised change of plans.
A couple of weeks ago Rob Silver, a supremely well-connected Liberal working for a mortgage firm, was in the news for his attempts to secure a legislative change that would benefit his company. Silver’s overtures were fruitless and I offer no opinion on their propriety, but he plainly knew what you need to do if you want to get something done in this town: Call Mike McNair, call Elder Marques, call Justin To. Write a letter to the minister? Don’t be old-fashioned.
When Anne Kelly became the Commissioner of Correctional Service Canada, Ralph Goodale wrote her a public mandate letter. “I encourage you to instill within CSC a culture of ongoing self-reflection,” he wrote, amusingly in hindsight. “This includes: regularly reviewing policies and operations to identify what works and change what does not… and welcoming constructive, good-faith critiques as indispensable drivers of progress.”
But in a government in which only a handful of staffers can actually make a decision, very few people in any department have the kind of autonomy Goodale was hoping Kelly would exercise. When the decision-making pipeline is no thicker than the PMO, and every particle of communication is the product of a chain involving dozens of staffers and bureaucrats reaching across government, nobody has the right to decide. So nobody is accountable for their decisions.
I don’t just mean that in the negative sense that nobody is sanctioned for a bad decision. I mean nobody has the authority to make a good decision. Things just happen. Or they just don’t. In a real sense, we’re not governed. We’re just given a constant runaround by people who, in many cases, would prefer not to be part of the immense machine delivering the runaround. Which is how a panel appointed to answer a basic question—has Canada stopped torturing people yet?—could work for a year and find no answers. And somehow it’s nobody’s fault. Not even Bill Blair’s, I guess.