Answers to 5 big questions about the forthcoming LRT inquiry

After months upon months of problems, and with the tenor of the debate at city hall increasingly heated, the province will launch a public inquiry into Ottawa's $2.1-billion light rail network. But what will that involve? CBC spoke to a municipal law expert at the University of Ottawa to find out.

'We're breaking this open,' says U of O prof Stéphane Émard-Chabot

LRT inquiry should help ‘get to the bottom of this fiasco,’ professor says

9 months ago
Duration 1:14
University of Ottawa municipal law professor Stephane Émard-Chabot says Ottawans want answers when it comes to the troubled LRT system and a public inquiry will hopefully provide them.

It's official: after months upon months of problems, and with the tenor of debate at city hall approaching a crescendo, the province will launch a public inquiry into Ottawa's $2.1-billion light rail network.

The inquiry will come at the problems facing the Confederation Line from a wholly different angle than what council approved last month, when they voted 13-10 in favour of an investigation by the city's auditor general.

It will also differ from the judicial inquiry Coun. Catherine McKenney had called for in a motion councillors ultimately rejected.

So what will it involve? CBC spoke with Stéphane Émard-Chabot, a former Ottawa city councillor who now teaches municipal law at the University of Ottawa, for his perspective.

Parts of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.

How common is it for a public inquiry to be called into the workings of a major public infrastructure project like LRT?

Very rare.

Honestly, I was looking back across Canada and the more well-known inquiries and there's nothing close to this. Typically inquiries happen when there's been loss of life and something fairly tragic has occurred. Think of Walkerton. Think of Lac-Mégantic.

When there's something really, really big — typically with loss of life — then normally an inquiry will be called to find out what happened and try to prevent it from happening again. This scenario with the train is different. It really is meant to try to get to the bottom of the process, and where it failed, if indeed it did fail. And that's certainly the impression I think most citizens in Ottawa have right now. 

A public inquiry has been called to get at the heart of the issues plaguing Ottawa's Confederation Line, which include a September derailment that left the city without functioning light rail for nearly two months. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

What's the difference between a judicial inquiry and a public inquiry?

The key difference is who's running the inquiry.

A judicial inquiry is run by a Superior Court justice. And the municipalities in Ontario have the right to call a judicial inquiry. If that famous motion had passed, the city would have been asking the court to appoint a judge to undertake this work, and the city would have framed what the mandate of that inquiry was. And the city would also be on the hook for the cost, for the most part.

A public inquiry is not in the hands of a judge. It is in the hands of somebody who will be appointed. This time, because Queen's Park is calling the shots, they're going to appoint the person. They're going to foot the bill. And they're also going to put the frame around the work the [appointed person or persons] will have to do.

Does a public inquiry have more power than a judicial inquiry?

No, not really. The ability to summon people, to look at documents, even confidential documents [is there]. The private contracts are going to be in the hands of the commission. So all those pieces are available.

The key difference is really who is in charge. And frankly, a judicial inquiry is a bit more complicated in that getting the court to free up a judge to conduct this work is not something that can happen overnight.

So typically, a public inquiry can get off to a start at a much quicker pace than a judicial inquiry.

Smoke rises from railway cars carrying crude oil that derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Que., in 2013. Public inquiries are usually called into tragedies like the Lac-Mégantic disaster, said Émard-Chabot, not to investigate infrastructure projects. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

What can a public inquiry accomplish that the auditor general cannot?

Think of this as a court setting, even if it's not a judge who's running it. The witnesses are called. They're examined. They're cross-examined. They are under oath. They have to produce documents. Those documents will be examined. 

Different participants have a stake in this, so the city will be a party. [So will] the commission itself. So will [Confederation Line builder] RTG. It is a much more fulsome and transparent process, in that all of this takes place in public and there is a hefty amount of questioning. Lawyers will be on all sides.

The level of investigation, the degree of questioning and the transparency are certainly very different. The [auditor general] process is not designed for this. It's an internal, mechanical review with recommendations on how to do things better.

This is full-fledged. We're breaking this open. We're going in and we're going to look at all aspects thoroughly.

The province says the inquiry will be completed before the 2022 municipal election. Is that possible?

It's possible [but] it's probably a bit ambitious. I'm reading some political subtext into that: they want this before the election so the public will be able to react at the polling booth.

The reality of inquiries is that they tend to take a bit longer and they tend to cost a bit more than expected. It will really depend on the scope that is given to the commissioner or commissioners, who is chosen, and whether they'll stick to the core or expand the lines of investigation.

With files from Adrian Harewood