The Commons: Horrible reality intrudes

Bob Rae holds the House with questions about Ashley Smith
Canada’s interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 7, 2012. REUTERS/Blair Gable (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS)
Blair Gable/Reuters

The Scene. The House went quiet.

Thomas Mulcair had concluded a sharp exchange with John Baird and Peggy Nash had just needled the government side about the price of shipping armoured limousines and now Bob Rae was on his feet. And suddenly all was very quiet. Not so much because of Mr. Rae—though here he held the House—but of what he had to say.

“Mr. Speaker, in indicating on Friday that the government was doing a complete reversal of its previous position at the Ashley Smith inquest, the government did not tell us what exactly has changed in the government’s position,” the interim Liberal leader posited. “There have now been a number of reports from the correctional investigator, indicating that the Ashley Smith death was not alone, was not a singular act, and in fact there are dozens of people who have died while in custody and who have committed suicide. I would like to ask the government, can it please explain to the House what exactly has changed over the last few days that has caused the government to change its position at the coroner’s inquest?”

Horrible reality has a way of chastening the residents of this place. Suddenly all is solemn. It is as if everyone collectively recognizes that we are no longer joking around here. Indeed, there is no greater demonstration of how far this place can stray from the world beyond these walls than the difference in volume that is heard when something like death—the realest of matters—is invoked.

Five-year-old videos of Ms. Smith in custody were released last Wednesday. On Thursday, under questioning by Mr. Rae, the Prime Minister described the death of Ms. Smith as a “terrible tragedy.” “Information has come to light that is completely unacceptable to the way the Correctional Service of Canada is supposed to do business,” he added. The next day, Justice Department lawyers withdrew their submissions to limit the scope of an inquest.

Mr. Rae was apparently interested to understand this sequence of events.

“Mr. Speaker, this tragedy continues to show that individuals with mental health issues do not belong in prison, but in professional facilities,” John Baird reported to the House by way of response. “At the same time, our government continues to take concrete steps on the issue of mental health in prison. We have taken action to improve access to mental health treatment and training of staff. Some of the behaviour by Corrections Canada seen in these videos is absolutely unacceptable, and that is why the government has directed Corrections Canada to fully co-operate on this issue.”

“Why did you wait so long?” Marc Garneau wondered aloud from the Liberal corner.

Mr. Baird’s response did not assuage Mr. Rae and now the Liberal commanded the room. Switching to French, he deliberately and emphatically delivered his denunciation, pausing for a beat between sentences, only silence to fill the spaces.

“Mr. Speaker, the Government of Canada had access to the videos in question for five years. For five years, the government was well aware of the situation,” he declared, commandeering the room. “It was only Friday that the video showed something unacceptable to Conservatives, but they were aware of the problem since their arrival in government, and certainly since the death of Ms. Smith. So what has really changed? The government is guilty of some hypocrisy.”

Mr. Baird could only offer assurances. “Mr. Speaker, it is clear for anyone viewing these videos that the behaviour by some officials at Corrections Canada is absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “That is why the government has directed Corrections Canada to be fully supportive of this investigation.”

Mr. Rae was up quick for his final intervention. “Let us be clear, Mr. Speaker,” he said. “There is not a correctional minister or a senior official in Corrections Canada who has not had access to those videos.”

He stared directly at the Speaker, his voice, loud but also without competition, filled the room.

“It was entirely possible for them to view those videos for five years. In fact, they must have seen the videos, because for such a long time they told the inquest, they told everybody, that the videos could not be shown because they were so serious. Now Canadians have seen them and now we understand what the problem is,” he explained.

He slapped his desk and then jabbed his finger at the government. “I would like to ask the government, how can it justify this level of inaction over five years in which the correctional investigator has said the situation is unacceptable?”

Mr. Rae returned to his seat and leaned back on his right elbow.

“This is a tragedy, Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Baird offered. “It shows that more could be done on mental health. That is why since 2006, we have ensured that there is faster mental health screening, that there has been extended mental and psychological counselling. We have ensured that no prison cells contain harmful objects, and we have had improved staff training. Obviously we are all deeply troubled by what these videos have shown, and that is why the government has directed Corrections Canada to fully co-operate.”

Mr. Rae shook his head as he listened.

A moment later, matters turned to the Intergovernmental Affairs and the accounting practices of his election campaign and then Pierre Poilievre was on his feet accusing the New Democrats of too closely associating with separatists and with that the familiar noise—the oohs, ahhs, moans and groans—returned.

The Stats. John Baird and Kellie Leitch, six responses each. Vic Toews, five responses. Steven Blaney, Pierre Poilievre and Gail Shea, three responses each. Gary Goodyear, Peter Kent, Ted Menzies and Leona Aglukkaq, two responses each. John Duncan, Rick Dykstra, Jason Kenney and Gerry Ritz, one response each.

Foreign investment, five questions. Prisons and employment insurance, four questions each. Ethics and veterans, three questions each. Government spending, the environment, fisheries, Service Canada, credit cards and taxation, two questions each. Aboriginal affairs, autism, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, health care, immigration, agriculture and firearms, one question each.