The RCMP fumbled yesterday to explain how a protester could plant a cream pie on the face of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien as he toured an agricultural show in Prince Edward Island.
The incident, the third glaring breach in security around the Prime Minister since he took office in 1993, led to sharp questions and an admission of failure from the Mounties.
An RCMP spokesman, Staff Sergeant André Guertin, said the force does not yet know what went wrong. He conceded that the breach that allowed the pie-thrower to get close could have also allowed an armed attacker to get to the Prime Minister.
"There's been a failure in the security, clearly," he said. "We want to determine the cause and put in place the appropriate measures to ensure that it doesn't happen again." However, he added that nothing can be done to eliminate the risk of an attack on the country's leader completely.
The incident occurred as Mr. Chrétien entered an agricultural exhibition in Charlottetown and began shaking hands with about 15 or 20 people.
A man stepped across Mr. Chrétien's path and landed the pie along one side of the Prime Minister's face.
Mr. Chrétien appeared momentarily stunned, then pulled the pie plate from his face as his eyes seemed to briefly flash with anger. RCMP officers then hustled him into a washroom, as the man was arrested. "You have developed a funny way of serving pies these days," he joked later to Prince Edward Island supporters. "I'm not that hungry."
The Prime Minister's Office was understood to be taking the latest security breach very seriously, however. A spokesman refused to comment on security issues.
"I think it's fair to say [Mr. Chrétien]was surprised, but he brushed it off and went about his day," said Randall McCauley, the Prime Minister's press secretary.
Evan Brown, 23, was charged with common assault. Mr. Brown, who yesterday claimed an allegiance to a group calling itself the PEI Pie Brigade, did not struggle as he was arrested by RCMP officers and turned over to Charlottetown police. He shouted as he was led away:
"It's about time the government was made accountable. Because it sure as hell, it sure as hell doesn't happen in this country."
When asked why he threw the pie, he exclaimed: "It's a protest. It's a protest for students, a protest for people on welfare, a protest for social reform, Jesus Christ!"
Mr. Brown was held by Charlottetown police until a court hearing yesterday afternoon and was released after making an undertaking to keep the peace until another hearing on Aug. 31.
Mr. Brown said an agreement he made with his lawyer prevented him from saying anything about himself or his actions.
A police spokesman, Constable Gary Clow, said police felt Mr. Brown was not a threat.
Despite that, the RCMP was embarrassed by a glaring fault in its security for the Prime Minister, and not for the first time.
In 1995, André Dallaire, a Montreal man who had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, made it to the door of the Chrétiens' bedroom before he was arrested by RCMP security officers. Mr. Chrétien joked about the incident, but was said to have been angered by the security failure.
In 1996, Mr. Chrétien was confronted by demonstrators at a Flag Day ceremony in a Hull park, and grabbed protester Bill Clennett. Mr. Chrétien said the RCMP failed to protect him and the force promised to "in the future ensure a more controlled access to the Prime Minister in similar situations."
Yesterday, while Staff Sergeant Guertin acknowledged that this appeared to be a similar security failure, he said the Mounties cannot completely protect the Prime Minister because Canadians want to have personal access to him at public events.
"We can't put him in a glass bubble and say nobody will ever have access to him, because he wouldn't stand for that," he said.
He said that RCMP officers had been walking a metre or so in front of Mr. Chrétien at the Charlottetown event yesterday, but did not see the assailant make his move until it was too late. He acknowledged that officers should have spotted a man with a pie.
"Yes, it is abnormal, but it wasn't picked up by security, and that's what we're reviewing."
The review is to be conducted by Assistant RCMP Commissioner Wayne Warwyk, but its results will not be made public.
While the pie attack on Mr. Chrétien brought a humbling admission of failure from the RCMP, it was far from the first time Canadian public figures have been hit by pies. Many of Mr. Chrétien's colleagues and opponents have been struck, and the Prime Minister knew he was also a target.
A Quebec group of pie-throwers known as the entartistes have said RCMP security officials have warned them against trying to strike Mr. Chrétien with a pie.
The entartistes have made Quebec a centre of pastry protest by planting pies on such notables as Jacques Parizeau, Stéphane Dion and Sylvester Stallone. Two Quebec pie-throwers, Patrick (Pop Tart) Robert and Benoit Foisy, were convicted of assault for hitting Mr. Dion with a pie, but have appealed.
It was the PEI Pie Brigade, the group Mr. Brown claimed allegiance to, that in January scored a hit on Health Minister Allan Rock, who laughed it off.
Mr. Robert said yesterday that there was one Montreal entartiste on the scene where Mr. Chrétien was hit with the pie, and he insisted that several other PEI pie-throwers had been ready with cream pies in case Mr. Brown failed.
Until yesterday, Mr. Chrétien had ranked third on the entartistes' Internet poll of people who should be targeted, behind media tycoon Conrad Black and Quebec Liberal Party Leader Jean Charest.
People who saw the incident appeared to side with Mr. Chrétien and did not find much humour in the protest.
"I'm somewhat disturbed that his security would allow someone to get that close," Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day told reporters in Kitchener, Ont. "People may think it's funny. I'm not laughing at what happened. You could have eye injuries . . . I don't see the humour in that."
Aaron Koleszar, who spoke yesterday on behalf of the PEI Pie Brigade, said the pie-thrower should get a medal, not handcuffs.
Mr. Koleszar said a group of young people concerned about social issues formed the pie-throwing group when they heard the Prime Minister was coming to PEI and chose to focus on the issue of genetically modified food because the foods affect all Canadians.
"The message is that people are unhappy with Jean Chrétien," Mr. Koleszar said.
"We will see in court if it was assault or not," he added. "It was a pie. It was just whipped cream. It was done gently and with great care and precision."
Mr. Koleszar said he believed the PM was the first head of state to be pied and said he hopes the event drew a smile from Canadians.