The Commons: Less acrimony from Vic Toews, more questions for him

The Commons: The Public Safety Minister makes himself clear
Aaron Wherry
Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews rises during question period in the House Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 1, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Scene. Rosane Doré Lefebrve wondered if the Public Safety Minister, given yesterday’s tone, might like to apologize to the family of Ashley Smith. The New Democrats present stood to applaud this suggestion.

Vic Toews stood and reported to the House as follows.

“Mr. Speaker, let me be clear on what I said,” he said. “This is a very sad case and our thoughts go out to Ms. Smith’s family. Some of the behaviour seen in these videos is absolutely unacceptable. Our government has directed Correctional Service Canada to fully co-operate with the coroner’s inquest.”

Ms. Doré Lefebrve was not impressed. “Mr. Speaker, this is not really an apology, but that’s probably all he is capable of doing,” she scolded.

There were groans from the government side.

Hopefully Mr. Toews’ aim yesterday was not to scare opposition MPs away from this subject. It seemed, instead, to have had the opposite effect. Where on Tuesday afternoon, the case of Ashley Smith was not raised until the ninth opportunity, today it was the subject of five of the first eight questions.

Ms. Doré Lefebrve repeated her query of the day before: would the government be implementing the recommendations of the corrections investigator?

Mr. Toews stood and reported as follows.

“Mr. Speaker, our government has always stood for the rights of victims and has done the right thing in regard to Ashley Smith. Not only did I direct CSC to settle litigation nearly two years ago, but CSC has also now been directed to co-operate fully with the coroner’s inquest,” he explained.

“Five years too late!” yelled Marc Garneau from the Liberal corner.

“In respect of an action plan, this is something that I raised with the provincial ministers over a year ago,” Mr. Toews continued. “As a result of our discussions last week with the Minister of Justice and all of the provincial and territorial ministers, we are in fact examining an action plan to deal with mental illness.”

Now it was Bob Rae’s turn and, like yesterday, the interim Liberal leader piled up three more questions.

“The coroner’s inquest in Ontario only covers the last year in custody,” he noted. “I would like to ask the government, is Corrections Canada in possession of other videos with respect to the care and treatment of Ashley Smith prior to the period under the jurisdiction of the coroner’s inquest? Has any one in the government seen those videos? Is the government now prepared to make any such videos public?”

John Baird, the Prime Minister’s stand-in, took this one, offering several reassurances without addressing the questions.

Mr. Rae was unimpressed and reiterated his queries. After some glancing back-and-forth along the government front bench, it was decided that Mr. Toews would respond this time.

“Despite the jurisdictional limitations of the coroner, we have indicated that CSC is to co-operate fully with the coroner,” Mr. Toews explained, holding no piece of paper this time. “If the coroner has need of certain information, the coroner simply can ask or subpoena for that information. I have directed CSC to co-operate.”

Mr. Rae held out his hands as if to plead for understanding. “Mr. Speaker, the minister who is in charge of Corrections Canada either knows or does not know whether or not there are videos for the period that he knows perfectly well are not covered by the coroner’s inquest,” he explained.

Now he crossed his left hand under his right arm and pointed with his right hand at the government side.

“I am asking the minister very directly, if the Government of Canada is really interested in getting to the bottom of this, why not deal with the jurisdictional issues that are still before the coroner because of the objections of some of the contracting physicians?” he asked “Why not hold a public inquiry which will deal with the entire period under which Ashley Smith has been custody?”

There was some grumbling from government members at this reference to a public inquiry.

“The facts dealing with her case have to come out,” Mr. Rae concluded.

Once more to Mr. Toews. “Mr. Speaker, a coroner’s inquest is a public inquiry,” he offered. “Not only does that coroner have jurisdiction in respect of subpoenas, we have directed, in so far as Correctional Services of Canada has any relevant information with respect to this matter, it shall be disclosed if the coroner requests it.”

He was a bit more insistent here, but yesterday’s cross words were not repeated.

The Stats. Prisons, five questions. Veterans and government services, four questions each. The economy and the budget, three questions each. Canada Post, ethics, intergovernmental affairs, foreign investment, the F-35 and the coast guard, two questions each. Employment insurance, infrastructure, history, fisheries, the environment, trade, arts funding and crime, one question each.

Steven Blaney, five responses. John Baird and Vic Toews, four responses each. Jim Flaherty, Pierre Poilievre, Tony Clement and Gail Shea, three responses each. Diane Finley, Rona Ambrose, Steven Fletcher and Gerald Keddy, two responses each. Peter Penashue, Christian Paradis, Denis Lebel, Peter Kent, James Moore and Rob Nicholson, one response each.