Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Trudeau's solicitor-general was the architect of prison reform Add to ...

As Solicitor-General in Pierre Trudeau's government, Jean-Pierre Goyer was the architect of prison reform in Canada. Concerned about both the cost of keeping a prisoner in jail and the rate of recidivism, Goyer promoted a more humane approach to incarceration.

During the 1970s, he introduced better haircuts and better clothing for inmates, inaugurated new housing arrangements that permitted conjugal visits, and made it easier for prisoners to work and go to school. If society really was to be protected, prison he argued, should offer inmates a "more relaxed atmosphere."

Goyer, who died in Montreal on May 24 at the age of 79, held minor portfolios in Trudeau's cabinet, but was a major player behind Trudeau's decision to seek the Liberal Party leadership in 1968.

"He was the first MP to rally for Trudeau's candidacy and he was actively involved in Trudeau's leadership campaign," recalled Marc Lalonde. "He had his own views. He might have been kind of stubborn. He often pursued what he thought was right without taking into consideration other points of view. He was young. Because he was young he was not a heavyweight in cabinet, but subject to close supervision by senior ministers. But as Solicitor-General he certainly held his own and made his mark especially during the 1970 October Crisis, when he was answerable for the RCMP and had to walk a tightrope. He was ambitious, but he never quite achieved his ambition."

Jean Pierre Goyer was born Jan 17, 1932, and was raised in St. Laurent by his widowed mother who ran a coal distribution company. He studied at College St. Laurent, College Ste. Marie, and in 1953 obtained his law degree from the Université de Montreal. As a student he was involved in a protest demonstration against Quebec's premier Maurice Duplessis and took part in the first sit-in ever staged in the Quebec National Assembly.

Goyer was elected to the House of Commons in 1965 for the Montreal riding of Dollard. Re-elected in 1968, he was named Solicitor-General in 1969. After the October Crisis, he gave the RCMP the green light to spy on civil servants and, in the interest of national security, may have ordered an illegal break-in at the offices of Agence de Presse Libre du Quebec, which had been founded by militant left-wing journalist Jacques Larue-Langlois.

Marc Lalonde doubts that Goyer gave such an order directly, and that his directives may have been misunderstood. "Certainly, the cabinet as a whole prodded the RCMP to concentrate on the FLQ, which was using violence in support of separatism," Lalonde said." The RCMP had spent so much time chasing Communists it was totally unequipped to do the job. The Mounties were under stress to obtain and collect information, but they had no agents in the field, nothing to go on," added Lalonde. "I am not convinced Goyer ever directed RCMP Commissioner John Starnes to do anything illegal. No minister would have directly done that."

Later, following a review by the McDonald Commission of the break-in and the circumstances surrounding it, the responsibility for intelligence gathering was removed from the Mounties, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was created.

Goyer is also remembered for his failed attempt to remove the letters RCMP from police cars, on the grounds that the acronym didn't translate into French. His undeniable legacy, however, was his reform of the penitentiary sysytem.

"For too long a time now, our punishment-oriented society has cultivated a state of mind that demands that offenders, whatever their age, and whatever the offence, be placed behind bars," he told the House of Commons, as he introduced the measures in 1971. "Too many Canadians object to looking at offenders as members of our society, and seem to disregard the fact that the correctional process aims at making the offender a useful and law-abiding citizen, and not any more an individual alienated from society and in conflict with it. Consequently, we have decided from now on to stress the rehabilitation of individuals, rather than the protection of society.

"Our reforms will perhaps be criticized for being too liberal or for omitting to protect society against dangerous criminals. This new policy will probably involve some risk, but we cannot maintain a system which in itself can cause even more obvious dangers."

After the 1972 election, Goyer became Minister of Supply and Services and was soon embroiled in a lawsuit after a senior civil servant sued him for libel over remarks he had made about the financing of a long-range patrol aircraft. Goyer won the case on appeal, then resigned from cabinet in 1978 and put politics behind him.

He returned to his law practice in Montreal where he remained socially, but not politically engaged. He became a corporate director of Bombardier Inc., served as head of the Montreal Urban Community's Arts Council, and was a major player in the city's classical music scene. As president of the Orchestre Métropolitain, he was at the centre of yet another controversy when he fired the orchestra's U.S. conductor, Joseph Rescigno to make way for Quebec conductor Yannick Nezet-Séguin. That decision cost the orchestra $290,000 in damages when a Superior Court Judge ruled that Rescigno was fired in "a brutal, abrasive and malicious manner."

Goyer was twice married, first to Michelle Gascon, with whom he had three daughters, Christine, Sophie and Julie, and then to his now widow, Nicole Forbes.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories