Anny Sauvageau alleges political, bureaucratic interference
Alberta's chief medical examiner is alleging political and bureaucratic interference in the independence of her office.
Dr. Anny Sauvageau has raised concerns interference by provincial government representatives may affect the public's trust in the integrity of the death-investigation system, specifically in relation to deaths of children in provincial care, prison inmates and those killed by police officers.
"Currently, there is regular political and bureaucratic interference in all aspects of the death investigation system, from the determination of cause and manner of death, to the development and implementation of policy related to death investigation," Sauvageau states in a July 31, 2014, internal letter to Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis leaked to CBC News.
"In the current conditions, I cannot protect the integrity of the death investigation system," Sauvageau states.
Alberta Justice deputy minister Tim Grant responded to Sauvageau on behalf of Denis and denied any interference.
'In the current conditions, I cannot protect the integrity of the death investigation system.' - Dr. Anny Sauvageau, in an internal letter to Justice Minister Jonathan Denis
CBC News, however, was also leaked documents which show deputy ministers Peter Watson and Steve MacDonald asked for special treatment by the chief medical examiner's office in relation to a specific case.
"I explained to the deputy minister that the (office of the chief medical examiner) is closed and viewing is not advisable due to the severe head injury," Chuan Chuck wrote on Saturday, May 10. Internal documents from the medical examiner's office show that in May, Watson, then deputy minister of executive council, called death investigator Chuck on behalf of a family who wanted to view the body of a person. The deputy minister of executive council is the most senior, and powerful, executive in the Alberta government.
On Monday, May 12, assistant chief medical examiner Mitchell Weinberg noted he had spoken with Steve MacDonald, who was then the deputy minister of Innovation and Advanced Education.
"Also spoke on phone with DM Steve MacDonald, as requested. Explained findings to him and told him that (body) is now available for release to funeral home."
Wildrose MLA Kerry Towle said the documents show deputy ministers used their political influence to gain special access to a service no other Albertans would get.
"I have no doubt that any Albertan who has a death in the family, any person who has a child in care, or anybody in any of the systems provided by this province who die, would probably also like the same preferences given to them," she said.
Sauvageau directed an interview request to Justice communications. Neither the department, Denis or Tim Grant responded to emailed interview requests on Wednesday afternoon.
Dispute over independence
The internal correspondence between Sauvageau and Grant details a lengthy dispute over the independence of Sauvageau's office. The correspondence reveals the dispute has escalated to the point that Sauvageau believes she is at risk of being fired for refusing to back down on the issue of her office's independence.
The correspondence also raises doubts about promises made by the government during a high-profile government conference in January on the deaths of children in provincial care.
An Edmonton Journal-Calgary Herald investigation revealed the province kept secret the deaths of hundreds of children in provincial care. The province promised the deaths of all children in care would be thoroughly and independently investigated by the chief medical examiner.
A draft report from the Child Intervention Roundtable January 2014 states: "Currently, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner – which operates at arm's length from the government – has an existing mandate to review all deaths and was discussed as a potential existing structure within which a paediatric death review committee could be located."
But Grant appears to contradict that statement in an Aug. 14, 2014 letter to Sauvageau.
"The CME (chief medical examiner) does not have constitutional or statutory independence as, for example, judges and Officers of the Legislature," Grant wrote. "The (office of the chief medical examiner) is part of the department and cannot operate arm's length from it."
After viewing the documents, and Grant's statement, Towle wondered about the integrity of the entire death-investigation system.
"How do you trust – and we have to be able to trust – the reports coming out of the office of the chief medical examiner, to ensure that they are accurate, they are appropriate, and they were done without any interference?" Towle asked
New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley said she now questions the Conservative government's recent promises for independent investigations of child deaths in care.
"I think this raises very clearly the question of whether this government is ever going to be prepared to subject its behaviour to truly independent and transparent oversight," Notley said. "I think they are so steeped in 43 years of secrecy and insider control that they don't understand that certain things need to be done independently."
Alberta's Conservative government has ruled the province for 43 years, the longest of any government in provincial history.
Child deaths in care
Notley said that, "when a child dies in care, when an inmate dies at the Remand Centre, when somebody is the result of a fatality by a police officer, these are things that have implications for the behaviour of the government so there needs to be independence when those kinds of fatalities are reviewed.
"Now I'm concerned that for the deputy minister, and probably by extension the attorney general, (independence) is a moving line," Notley said. "It is a shifting standard and probably one that shifts on the basis of convenience, so I'm very concerned about what that means for these very important processes in Alberta."
Edmonton lawyer D'Arcy DePoe, a spokesman for the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, said the chief medical examiner may not have statutory independence, but the office should still be treated as wholly independent.
"When it comes to dealing with individual cases and the manner in which death investigations are conducted, that part of the office has to be maintained as independent, much like individual Crown prosecutors are independent in their handling of individual criminal cases," DePoe said.
Internal documents from the medical examiner's office also show former premier Dave Hancock asked for special treatment for a constituent.
In a letter dated July 21, 2014, under the letterhead of the premier of Alberta, Hancock tells the office of the chief medical examiner that a constituent does not believe the cause of death of his wife.
"While I have written to him and provided him with the proper access to have a case review, I have also taken the liberty of providing you a copy of the material that (the constituent) had sent to me," Hancock wrote. "I wish to request if you could be so kind as to undertake such a review and you would consider (the constituent) letter as such request."
Towle said members of the legislature are supposed to advocate on behalf of constituents. But she noted Hancock wrote the letter as premier, not simply as an MLA.
She said while Hancock notes that he told his constituent the normal process for seeking a review, he "then asks the office of the chief medical examiner to bypass that process and consider this letter enough to do that.
"I think in the everyday Albertan's mind this will be seen as interference but more importantly this will be seen as using your political position to provide that interference and it's inappropriate," Towle said.
Towle said Sauvageau's allegations of political interference are serious and require an immediate independent review "to protect the integrity of the system for the government's side, but also for the office of the chief medical examiner."