The Prime Minister’s Office was alerted months before notorious child killer and serial rapist Paul Bernardo was transferred to a medium-security prison that the move was on the table, a spokesperson for Justin Trudeau said Wednesday.
The news significantly widens the net of people in government who were aware that the change was being considered by Correctional Service Canada. Mr. Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino have expressed shock and dismay since Mr. Bernardo’s May transfer was made public.
“When a staff member in the Prime Minister’s Office was alerted in March by the Privy Council Office about the possibility of the transfer, inquiries and requests for information were immediately made to the Public Safety Minister’s Office,” spokesperson Alison Murphy said in a statement.
“That was the right step to take given the Public Safety Minister’s responsibility for the Correctional Service of Canada.”
Her statement shows that the Prime Minister was briefed on the issue a day before Mr. Mendicino, the minister responsible for the file, was briefed.
She said Mr. Trudeau was briefed on May 29, the same day Mr. Bernardo was transferred. She did not clarify whether that was the first time Mr. Trudeau was briefed.
Ms. Murphy also did not clarify whether Correctional Service Canada confirmed to the PMO that the decision had been finalized before Mr. Bernardo was transferred.
Mr. Bernardo was handed a life sentence for the kidnapping, sexual assault, torture and murder of two girls: 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy in 1991 and 15-year-old Kristen French in 1992.
He was also convicted of manslaughter in the 1990 death of Tammy Homolka, the 15-year-old sister of his then-wife, Karla Homolka. Ms. Homolka pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the crimes committed against Ms. French and Ms. Mahaffy, and was released in 2005 after serving a 12-year sentence. Mr. Bernardo also admitted to sexually assaulting 14 other women.
The Public Safety Minister invoked the wrath of Parliament and the anger of the families of the victims of Mr. Bernardo on Wednesday after CBC News reported that his office had been told that Mr. Bernardo would be transferred to a lower-security prison in March. He told the House of Commons on Wednesday that his office didn’t brief him before the prison transfer happened.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre on June 14 called for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s resignation over allegations the minister lied about when he learned serial killer Paul Bernardo would be transferred from maximum- to medium-security prison.
The Canadian Press
Unlike the statement from the PMO, which suggests that Mr. Bernardo’s transfer was not yet confirmed in March, a statement from Correctional Services Canada says that it was confirmed and Mr. Mendicino’s office was told about it.
“The March 2 e-mail contained information notifying them of the transfer, along with communications messaging to support this,” said Correctional Services Canada spokesperson Kevin Antonucci in a statement Wednesday. He added that in March, the final date for the transfer hadn’t been determined and so Mr. Mendicino’s office also received an e-mail on May 25 with “updated communications messaging, as well the fact that the transfer would occur on the Monday, May 29.”
A separate statement from the minister’s office late on Wednesday suggested that when Mr. Mendicino’s team found out about the transfer on March 2, the Prime Minister’s Office was already aware of the matter.
Both the federal corrections service and the government have pointed out that the authority to make the decision on Mr. Bernardo rested solely with the service.
The families of Ms. French and Ms. Mahaffy are outraged by the government’s and the correctional service’s handling of the case, their lawyer Tim Danson said. He pointed out that the timing of all of the revelations is particularly painful for the Mahaffy family. Thursday marks the 32 anniversary of their daughter’s brutal murder.
He said they were kept in the dark on the transfer until the day it happened.
“The families are demanding answers to this, because they feel that they’ve been taken for granted and that they have been manipulated,” Mr. Danson said.
He added that the top experts in the country say Mr. Bernardo cannot be treated and that two years ago, the parole board found Mr. Bernardo had “no remorse, no empathy, no insight.”
News of Mr. Bernardo’s transfer broke on June 2. Last week, Mr. Mendicino called the switch to a lower-security prison “shocking and incomprehensible” but he never acknowledged that it was news his government was already aware of.
Opposition parties lambasted the government for a pattern of ignorance Wednesday, noting that the PMO and the Privy Council Office are the most senior political and bureaucratic offices of the federal government. Late Wednesday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said news that both branches of government were notified months ago that Mr. Bernardo might be transferred shows “a level of disorganization and negligence in the government that is having serious consequences.”
“There is a legitimate question as to whether or not minister Mendicino is on top of his job,” Mr. Singh said.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said in a statement that the controversy shows “a failure of leadership at the very top.”
“Instead of acting, the Prime Minister did nothing and left it in the hands of his most useless minister,” he said.
Before the PMO confirmed that it was also aware that a prison transfer was possible, Mr. Poilievre had already called on Mr. Mendicino to resign over the matter. Asked early Wednesday how he responded to Mr. Poilievre, the Prime Minister made no statement of confidence in his minister.
“In regards to the minister’s office, and the new information coming out, I know the minister will be addressing that shortly,” Mr. Trudeau said.
In the House, the Public Safety Minister rejected calls from the Conservatives to resign. “I will not,” Mr. Mendicino said in response to repeated demands.
However, on Wednesday, he issued a directive to the federal corrections service demanding that it contact him directly about high-profile inmate transfers in the future rather than just his office.
It’s the second time in a month that Mr. Mendicino has released an edict demanding that the agencies that report to him also talk to him. Both directives were made in the wake of damaging stories that raised issues of competence in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet.
Opposition parties say that in addition to Mr. Mendicino saying his own staff didn’t brief him on the transfer of one of Canada’s most notorious killers, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan has said he wasn’t reading his e-mails during the fall of Afghanistan, and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said he never read a spy agency memo issued directly to him about China targeting Conservative MP Michael Chong.
When presented with that list outside of the House, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters: “I have full confidence in my cabinet colleagues.”
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said there appears to be a “culture of ignorance” within the Trudeau government, but he added that ignorance does not negate ministerial responsibility.
“This government has a real, real bad habit of saying ‘I didn’t know.’ If they know so little, what the hell are they doing there?”
With reports from The Canadian Press, Ian Bailey and Stephanie Chambers.