Christie Blatchford

We keep secrets, but does anyone care?

Only in Canada would it even be possible to contemplate that the author of a gruesome killing would have greater rights as a mental-health consumer than the fellow whose head he cut off

Christie Blatchford

Tuesday, May. 19, 2009 01:20PM EDT

A newspaper friend, who has worked in the United States for much of his career and recently returned to Canada, wondered aloud the other day how, given the way privacy routinely trumps the public's right to know here, reporters in this country ever do their jobs.

Amen, I thought, but we were at dinner, so I spared him the protracted rant.

But there is one, and probably nothing illustrates the why better than the stories this week about the hearing that will be held in Winnipeg on Monday to determine the fate of Vincent Li, the notorious Greyhound bus killer.

Mr. Li, a schizophrenic who stabbed, beheaded and cannibalized a 22-year-old carnival worker named Tim McLean who was asleep in the seat beside him near Portage la Prairie last July, was found not criminally responsible for the killing earlier this spring.

As a result, his fate is in the hands of the province's Criminal Code Review Board, a nine-member group of lawyers and psychiatrists and lay people appointed by the Manitoba government.

And the stories earlier in the week raised the possibility that the public might never learn whether Mr. Li is hospitalized or released, because the review board's practice was to treat these decisions as private in deference to a patient's right to confidentiality.

There followed a flurry of furious editorials, snap public-opinion polls and a genuine outcry from ordinary Canadians.

Happily enough, board chair John Stefaniuk said yesterday, these inquiries about “if the decision will be released and if not, why?” caused the board to look at its practices, “review the legal advice previously given and the board's previous interpretation” of that advice, and conclude that “Our interpretation may have been a bit too regimented.”

As a result, the board will try to be “a bit more nuanced” in deciding what and how much can be made public, Mr. Stefaniuk told The Globe and Mail in a phone interview yesterday.

It means that the board's decision on Mr. Li, which will likely follow two or three days after the hearing, will be made public, though perhaps not the reasons for the decision, which are usually months in the making. The latter hasn't been decided yet. The hearing itself is open to the public.

You'll forgive me if I don't break out the champagne: Only in Canada would it even be possible to contemplate that the author of a gruesome killing would have greater rights as a mental-health consumer than the fellow whose head he cut off.

I mean no disrespect to the gravity of Mr. Li's illness, or to the decision by the criminal courts.

No one can argue that Mr. Li was gravely ill. He heard the voice of God directing him that night, as indeed he'd heard voices for years. Schizophrenia is a major mental illness, and Mr. Li, normally gentle, was in the midst of a major psychotic break when he attacked Mr. McLean. The disease's most frequent victims are the poor sons of bitches who suffer from it, who end up alone and homeless on the streets, who tend to kill themselves at a frightening rate. Mr. Li may have been the most not criminally responsible man in the country. He deserves compassion as much as the public deserves protection from him, and part of that protection is surely knowing what the board decides to do with him and why.

I called Mr. Stefaniuk yesterday because I couldn't really believe the board was ever actually contemplating keeping Mr. Li's fate a secret. Mr. Stefaniuk disputed the term. “It's not secret,” he said, noting that board decisions are distributed to the Crown attorney, the hospital, the patient and the victim, if any. But it counts as secret in my books if the media can't publish and the public can't know.

The truth is, in Canada there is a lot that is secret, and not all that often does the public care.

I recently covered the murder trial of a young offender in Ottawa – he too committed his crime on a bus, as it happens – and was actually refused the most basic information at the front counter. I wanted to know in what courtroom the trial was taking place; the clerk refused to tell me, citing the Youth Criminal Justice Act and Ontario Attorney-General Ministry directives. In an instant, I went incandescent with rage, whereupon the clerk said, with that smarminess perfected by public servants, “You don't have to use that tone.”

As it turns out, this practice – along with not posting publicly anywhere in Ontario courthouses where any trials involving youths were being held, with the result that even court officials and defence lawyers couldn't find out where they were to be – was a short-lived one, quickly rescinded by the ministry.

But someone thought it was a good idea, someone else approved it, and for a time, it was the rule.

I've covered a handful of criminal cases in various parts of the United States. In one in Texas, the prosecutor wore a small pistol tucked into his cowboy boot, and the court was so informal no one stood up for the judge; in two other recent cases, exhibits were online, available to press and public alike, the same day they were introduced into evidence.

Compare that to the Canadian way, where the newspaper I worked for once had to hire a lawyer in order for me to be given a glance at a list of the exhibits at a major murder trial, and where lawyers sometimes disappear into a judge's chambers to decide, unofficially and with no one taking notes, of course, so there is no record, what will happen when they enter the courtroom.

It's not just in the justice system, either, where the players and the process are open and accessible. For instance, in school shootings in the United States, teachers, principals and students are usually eager to talk to reporters, and aren't stopped in their tracks by well-meaning counsellors. In Canada, police and school officials consider it an unofficial part of their job to protect people from the alleged trauma of talking.

Americans know better, that just as often talking is therapeutic, whether as a witness on the stand or telling the tale to a stranger, and more important, that they have the right to decide for themselves. They value the right to speak and the right to know.

In Canada, we save those ringing sorts of words – “Freedom of Information” and “Access to Information” and the like – for the long titles of the very legislation designed to keep us all in the dark. Much of the time, it's where we'd rather be.






Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre

5/31/2009 7:53:24 PM

Thanks Christie,
Your story accurate describes the corrupt state of our Ontario Justice system that hides anything it does not suit its purpose.
I've lost count of the number of times that courts routinely "bury" a case.

In Ottawa, its common practice for the Regional Senior Justice Hackland or his "courts administration" to assign the very worst, least suitable judge to hear a matter, that means, selecting the judge with the greatest conflict of interest, the judge who will be most likely to make the decision "required" by the judicial management, and thats without reading the pleadings.

Judicial administration use other "Dirty Tactics", that includes, delaying, preventing transcripts, loosing files, giving instructions to court staff to "have him arrested", to "call security" to , "leave the entire file in my chambers so he cannot file", to using just one judge in the entire building, who has the lowest ethics, the nastiest psychopathic personality to "hold an exparte hearing" or a hearing for "Summary Judgment" , these are hearings that put Innocent men, in jail simply because an administrative Judge is on a power-trip, drunk in the knowledge he has absolute power, and a willingness to flagrantly abuse that power in a way that brings disgrace to the Judiciary, not to mention the legal profession and most importantly, turn the legal system into a personal tool of revenge and retribution that has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with law but political correctness as viewed through the eyes of a criminal who somehow made it through law school and got appointed as a Family Court Judge.