Politics

John Gomery, who headed federal sponsorship scandal inquiry, has died

Retired Quebec Superior Court Justice John Gomery, who became a household name after heading the inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal, has died.

His findings concluded there was evidence of political involvement in Quebec program running from 1995-2003

Retired Quebec Superior Court Justice John Gomery, who became a household name after heading the inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal, has died. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Retired Quebec Superior Court justice John Gomery, who became a household name after heading the inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal, has died.

He was 88.

Elizabeth Gomery, one of his four children, tweeted the news late Tuesday night.

"He was a giant, an extraordinary man and a superb father and my heart and whole body aches now that he's gone," she wrote.

In an interview with CBC News, she said her father survived two strokes last year and caught COVID-19 during a stay in a rehabilitation centre. She said his health had deteriorated over the past few months.

Around four weeks ago, he chose to obtain medical assistance in dying.

"We were immensely privileged to say goodbye and to say thank you," she said. 

John Gomery, who had been a lawyer and judge for 50 years, gained national prominence after former prime minister Paul Martin appointed him commissioner of the inquiry that examined problems with the federal sponsorship program in Quebec between 1995 and 2003.

The months-long inquiry looked into allegations of fraud related to payments of millions of dollars to Liberal Party-friendly advertising firms for little or no work. His findings concluded that there was clear evidence of political involvement in the administration of the sponsorship program, as well as insufficient oversight at senior levels of the public service and secrecy surrounding the program's administration.

Not everyone celebrated his work, however. 

Gomery infamously used the term "small-town cheap" to describe former prime minister Jean Chrétien's use of promotional golf balls embossed with his signature. Chrétien and his supporters called for him to step down.

A Federal Court justice later struck down his conclusion that Chrétien and his chief of staff shared some responsibility for the sponsorship scandal.

"It was a spectacle," Gomery said at one point of the inquiry. "It wasn't a rehearsed spectacle, but to see witnesses, one after the other, making startling revelations after being confronted with documents they couldn't explain was exciting and engrossing."

Former PM Jean Chretien holds up a golf ball as he testifies at the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program on Feb. 8, 2005. The head of the inquiry, John Gomery, referred to golf balls that Chretien put his name on as "small-town cheap".

Elizabeth Gomery said that, despite his time in the political spotlight, her father remained a private person.

"It was a radical experience for my father and for my family to all of a sudden have my father be known. We would walk on the street and people would stop and shake his hand. I would be like, 'Dad, you're as popular as Brad Pitt, that's amazing,'" she said.

"It's very nice to know how much my Dad was loved. Because that's certainly how I feel."

Gomery said the hardworking, stalwart figure Canadians got to know during the inquiry was true to who her father was — except in one area.

"He was really well known in Canada for his patience and I have to say that that was not something his immediate family knew him for," she said.

"Dad was an amazing man. He was smart. He was funny. He was incredibly honest."

Long legal career

Robert Leckey, dean of the faculty of law at McGill University in Montreal, said the inquiry helped Canadians understand how governments work.

"The Gomery commission was really the first one where people were glued to their TVs sets and wanted to follow what was going on and to have an impartial expert trying to learn the story in the public's interest," he said.

"I think the Gomery commission has left a lasting imprint on the processes and expectations around accountability widely through government and the public sector." 

Before he led the nightly news for months on end, Gomery had a long career in Quebec's justice system.

After becoming a judge in 1982, he made important decisions in cases involving workers' rights. He told journalists he was particularly proud of leading a team of judges that reformed family law.

"The commission came as the cherry on the top of the cake, and it was an enormous cherry," Gomery told The Canadian Press back in 2007.

"It was a test for me, frankly. But I haven't regretted it. And if the people remember me for that, that's fine. It's sort of inevitable. I can't expect people in Calgary, Alberta, to know me for any other reason than that."

With files from Chloe Ranaldi

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