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Canadian government

Canada and public inquiries

Last Updated November 13, 2007

With Prime Minister Stephen Harper calling a formal public inquiry into the dealings of former prime minister and fellow Tory, Brian Mulroney, royal commissions and official inquiries are in the news again in Canada.

Canada does more of this official navel-gazing than any other democracy in the world. There have been some 450 official inquiries - some royal commissions, some not - since Confederation.

Inquiries have delved into the dirty details of the federal sponsorship scandal, in which $100 million in taxpayer dollars were doled out to dubious destinations. Then there was the probe into the so-called "Arar affair", which examined the role of government officials in the year-long torture of Syrian-born Canadian citizen Maher Arar.

Some inquiries have done excellent work, brought in far-sighted, workable recommendations, and changed the country for the better. Others have been costly fiascoes. Many were called to deflect attention from a political hot potato, allowing the government of the day to say the matter is under investigation, knowing that when the heat's off the report will benignly gather dust.

Royal commissions come from our British heritage. Parliament passed an Inquiries Act in 1868, a similar act was passed in 1880, then in 1912 the two acts were combined into the Inquiries Act in use today. Except for the title - chosen by whoever drafts the proclamation - royal commissions and commissions of inquiry are essentially the same thing.

Cost to the public

One qualm about conducting these fact-finding missions is the cost to taxpayers. However, inquiries haven't always been long, costly affairs. In 1873, a three-member commission spent three months investigating floods on the St. Lawrence River. Total cost: $2,257.

Contrast this with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which met from August 1991 to November 1996 - the longest royal commission ever - and spent a staggering $60 million of public money, by far the most expensive royal commission in Canada's history. The sad thing is that, as far as significant impact into government action goes, the royal commission on aboriginals pretty well sank like a stone.

The second most expensive commission, and the second longest, was the one into reproductive technologies, which met from October 1989 to November 1993 and cost $30 million.

The commission that spent the most money in the shortest time was the Citizens Forum on Canada's Future, headed by Keith Spicer. It met from November 1990 to June 1991 and cost $22 million. It may also have been the naughtiest of all time, having been appointed by then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, then saying in the final report "�there is a fury in the land against the prime minister."

In the next federal election, the Tories won only two seats in the country.

Bang for taxpayers buck?

It's worth noting that the number of recommendations acted on isn't always a fair way of assessing a commission's work. David Cameron, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, distinguishes between policy-making and investigative commissions. He told CBC News Online that recommendations of royal commissions aren't always or even necessarily their most valuable contributions. They often provide vital material for long-range policy decisions, and are valuable as vehicles for consciousness-raising.

This certainly was the case with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, headed by Mr. Justice Thomas Berger in the 1970s. Berger held community hearings in the North and in native settlements along the Mackenzie Valley, opening the microphones of the commission to men, women and children so they could tell their stories. Berger then took the commission on a southern swing all the way across Canada to the Maritimes.

Berger's historic report - titled Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland - resulted in a 10-year moratorium on any gas pipeline along the Mackenzie Valley.

Most everyone has good things to say about the Hall Commission that brought in medicare. Also, the Massey Commission on the Arts that laid down the foundations of our cultural policy, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women that set standards for sexual equality, and the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism that redefined Confederation as an equal partnership between English and French.

One must include among the good ones the royal commission that finally won freedom for Donald Marshall after he had spent 11 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Also the inquiry into the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin, and the Dubin Inquiry in the 1980s, which dealt with the impact of performance-enhancing drugs on amateur athletes.

Inquiries: Hit and miss

Then there were the real stinkers, like the 1990s inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces in Somalia, which ran up a tab of $14 million before the government stepped it and shut it down. "Deadly," was how Willard Estey, a former Supreme Court of Canada justice, described the Somalia inquiry.

And let's not forget the Krever Inquiry into contaminated blood in Canada, a situation that infected 1,200 Canadians with the AIDS virus and another 12,000 with hepatitis C. The inquiry, headed by Mr. Justice Horace Krever, cost $15 million and bogged down in legal wrangling as the Red Cross and pharmaceutical companies challenged Krever's right to lay blame for the tragedy.

"They've fallen into a rut," Estey told The Globe and Mail, commenting on the state of commissions and inquiries in the mid-1990s. "I think they are now abused beyond usefulness."

Still, the recent flurry of these public probes in recent years demonstrate they're still a mechanism that governments use to bring facts to light. In fact, it was Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, and Mulroney himself who made noisy calls for a public inquiry into Mulroney's financial dealings with German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber. But it won't be clear until the reports are handed down and the dust is settled as to whether the inquiry is beneficial to Canadians, or a benign exercise.

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