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In law, ignorance is no excuse. But in politics, at least in the federal cabinet, ignorance is the first line of defence.

Marco Mendicino is the latest Liberal minister to wield his obliviousness as a shield, stating that while his office was informed – twice over several months – that serial killer Paul Bernardo was to be transferred to a medium-security prison in Quebec, no one bothered to tell him ahead of time.

Mr. Mendicino concedes that he meets with the commissioner of Correctional Services Canada at least twice a month, but says that the commissioner did not once tell him of Mr. Bernardo’s transfer in the nearly three months it was pending. Many around Mr. Mendicino were in the loop. Just not the minister.

The Public Safety Minister has company in his fog of ignorance; for a start, there’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose office evidently failed for weeks to flag to him that Mr. Bernardo was to be moved from maximum security on May 29. Mr. Trudeau was only made aware of the transfer on the day it took place, his office says. (And it was only on that same day that anyone got around to filling in the families of two of Mr. Bernardo’s victims, Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French.)

Then there is former defence minister Harjit Sajjan, who is well versed in the strategic use of ignorance. Former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne said that he tried to show Mr. Sajjan an e-mail in March, 2018, regarding an allegation of inappropriate sexual behaviour against then-chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance. Mr. Sajjan’s reaction? He “pushed back from the table and said ‘no,’ ” Mr. Walbourne told a Commons committee in 2021.

Later in 2021, Mr. Sajjan was again beset by a lack of information. This time, he was (conveniently) unaware of efforts by Senator Marilou McPhedran’s office to distribute federal travel documents to Afghan refugees, in the mistaken belief that those forms would speed their entry into Canada.

Two months ago, Mr. Sajjan, now International Development Minister, told a Commons committee that he was unaware of the senator’s efforts – because he was too busy to check his e-mail in the midst of the intense effort in August, 2021, to evacuate Canadian personnel and Afghans from Afghanistan. He was also in the dark about the fact that his then chief of staff had sent templates of those documents to Ms. McPhedran’s office.

Even after news of his office’s involvement broke, Mr. Sajjan didn’t take the time to read through his inbox to see if there was any correspondence about the senator’s efforts.

All of this rather suggests that the Liberals prefer to be seen as clueless rather than culpable. At the risk of seeming old-fashioned, a claim of blissful ignorance stands in direct contradiction to the idea of ministerial accountability. No minister is expected to know every detail of everything happening in their department. Such a standard would be beyond unreasonable. But that does not mean a minister can simply shrug, and ward off any culpability by invoking the phrase “I didn’t know” as a talisman.

Political science aside, there’s the question of how it came to be that a minister’s staff believed they should not brief the boss on important matters, such as the transfer of a notorious murderer to more comfortable quarters.

Simple incompetence could be the explanation, but it would take exceptional ineptitude on the part of Mr. Mendicino’s ministerial staff to not only neglect to tell him about Mr. Bernardo’s transfer beforehand, but then also to fail to tell him, once the news broke, that his office had been made aware of the matter.

If incompetence is indeed at issue, what has Mr. Mendicino done about it? To date, he’s made a vague pronouncement that he’s dealt with “internal matters” and that he’s told the federal corrections department to brief him directly on high-profile transfers.

Canadians – especially the French and Mahaffy families – are owed more. Mr. Mendicino needs to be clear on exactly what information was shared with his office, and demonstrate that incompetence has a price, by firing the staff members who failed in their duties, in his recounting of events.

If Mr. Mendicino does not take those actions, he will be giving his retroactive stamp of approval to those who, he says, kept him in the dark. And he will be confirming to Canadians that, for the Liberals, ignorance is bliss.

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