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Police and investigators head towards the Algo Centre Mall on June 29, 2012 in Elliot Lake, Ont. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Police and investigators head towards the Algo Centre Mall on June 29, 2012 in Elliot Lake, Ont. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Ontario judge to lead investigation into Elliot Lake mall collapse Add to ...

A well-known Ontario judge appointed to head an inquiry into the Elliot Lake mall collapse has been handed a complex probe complicated by an ongoing criminal investigation.

The Ministry of the Attorney General’s office announced on Monday morning that Mr. Justice Paul R. Bélanger will lead the inquiry into the June 23 mall collapse, which killed two women and, according to many Elliot Lake residents, could have been prevented.

An order in council will determine the scope of the inquiry.

According to Paul Cavalluzzo, a constitutional lawyer who served as commission counsel on the Walkerton and Maher Arar inquiries, Judge Bélanger has three main tasks: determining how and why the mall collapsed, providing recommendations for preventing similar incidents, and restoring public confidence in government institutions.

To do this, Judge Bélanger will assemble a commission counsel, a team of lawyers to guide the investigation.

Mr. Cavalluzzo said these lawyers often define public inquiries, serving as “the alter-ego” for the commissioner and departing significantly from their usual duties of gathering only the evidence that suits their clients’ case.

You bring forward everything,” Mr. Cavalluzzo said, describing the role of commission counsel as “much more public-interest oriented.”

Mr. Cavalluzzo said the commissioner will also retain investigators, likely former police officers, to help find relevant documents and other evidence. These might include engineering reports on the structural soundness of the mall, or records of inspections.

The counsel team will contact parties with an interest, such as the mall’s owner, the building manager, and the city.

Outside groups or individuals may also want to take part, said Derry Millar, lead commission counsel on the Ipperwash inquiry, which looked into the police shooting death of unarmed protester Dudley George.

“We had a whole host of different parties,” Mr. Millar said, including Mr. George’s family, law enforcement and politicians.

These parties can request standing, which would allow them or their lawyer to cross-examine witnesses and present submissions.

Judge Bélanger will have a year to report.

Elliot Lake residents have painted the mall’s collapse as the outcome of years of neglect. Global News reported on Monday that engineering firm M.R. Wright and Associates inspected the mall and found significant leakage problems in 2009, but after an inspection in April, 2012, remained satisfied that the building was structurally sound.

But Mr. Cavalluzzo said the Ontario Provincial Police’s criminal investigation will complicate the inquiry process.

“Under our Charter of Rights, you have the right to remain silent,” Mr. Cavalluzzo explained. “But quite frequently the public inquiry happens before the criminal trial.”

The commissioner must ensure that any testimony is not used against a person at a later criminal trial.

Through a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, Judge Bélanger declined to comment.

The Attorney General’s office provided a brief biography of the judge: he is the representative for the Ontario Court of Justice on the Attorney General’s French-language services committee, an Osgoode Hall graduate, and a father of three.

Judge Bélanger presided over the case of André Dallaire, who was accused of attempted murder after breaking into the prime minister’s home in 1995.

John Hale, who represented Mr. Dallaire, described Mr. Bélanger as “terrifying” inside the courtroom, but “a teddy bear” outside – demanding of lawyers, but humane and compassionate to those he respects.

Thinking of his first appearance in front of Judge Bélanger as an articling student in 1987, Mr. Hale recalls an overwhelming feeling of nausea.

“I remember feeling quite ill beforehand,” Mr. Hale said. “I made sure not to eat that morning.”

Years later, Mr. Hale argued that charging Mr. Dallaire with attempted murder made as much sense as saying a baseball player waiting on deck had attempted to hit a homerun.

His argument fell flat, but a clerk later handed him a lengthy photocopied article, courtesy of the judge –“On the Contribution of Baseball to American Legal Theory,” from The Yale Law Journal.

Mr. Hale hasn’t spoken with Judge Bélanger about the article, but said he thinks it was his cheeky way of saying, “Nice try.”

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