Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino was unable to explain Thursday why he wasn’t informed about child killer and serial rapist Paul Bernardo’s prison transfer and wouldn’t say whether any of the staff who failed to notify him were fired as a consequence.
On the anniversary of 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy’s brutal torture and murder, Mr. Mendicino acknowledged that the families have been traumatized by Correctional Services Canada’s decision to shift Mr. Bernardo to a medium-security prison. Despite his criticism of the agency that reports to him, he was still unable to explain why it happened.
The minister spent a second day trying to dodge reporters and being hounded by the opposition, who accused him of “feigning surprise” at Mr. Bernardo’s transfer two weeks ago, urged him to resign, and said he is making a “dog ate my homework” excuse for ministerial responsibility.
Ministers have come under fire in the House of Commons for a pattern of ignorance over the past few months that has led to questions of competence. Several ministers said they were unaware of key facts when contentious files landed on their plate.
In addition to the Prime Minster and Public Safety Minister saying they were left in the dark on the prison transfer, 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.
Talk of a widely expected summer cabinet shuffle grew louder Thursday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stayed away from the House and will be out of Ottawa on Friday.
The Prime Minister’s Office said Wednesday that it knew Mr. Bernardo’s transfer was on the table in March. But it said Mr. Trudeau was briefed May 29 – the same day Mr. Bernardo was moved.
Mr. Mendicino made brief comments at a microphone outside a committee hearing on Thursday and then walked away from reporters before they could ask questions.
He stopped again after being followed by about a dozen reporters and photographers. He declined to explain how it’s credible that he did not know about the transfer while his office did.
“The short answer is it is unacceptable. And my job is to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” Mr. Mendicino said.
“As far as internal matters, I’ve dealt with it.”
He did not say whether any staff were fired or faced other repercussions and his office did not clarify in a subsequent request, citing privacy.
Mr. Mendicino’s office says it was told about a potential transfer on March 2. The decision was confirmed on March 27 and informally communicated to the minister’s team in the weeks after.
The minister’s office does not control decisions around offenders but both the Conservatives and NDP say Mr. Mendicino could have done more.
Mr. Mendicino, who has been in cabinet since 2019, said he is in the process of identifying “challenges on information flow” and said it is not standard practice for his staff to leave him out of the loop.
Mr. Bernardo was transferred to a medium-security prison on May 29 and the families of his victims were not told until the move was completed. The decision from Correctional Services Canada has triggered outrage among opposition parties. Mr. Mendicino also questioned the move.
“The decision to transfer Paul Bernardo to a medium-security institution does not sit well with Canadians because it is an affront to the victims,” Mr. Mendicino said Thursday. “We are going to support them; we’re going to make sure that victims rights are at the centre of these decisions and that going forward, victims are notified in a timely manner before those decisions are taken.”
House Leader Mark Holland filled in for the Prime Minister in Question Period on Thursday where the vast majority of opposition questions were about the mishandling of the Paul Bernardo file and the broader questions of government competence.
Mr. Holland told the House that Correctional Service Canada’s review of Mr. Bernardo’s security classification will be completed in two weeks – after MPs have left Ottawa for the summer. The corrections agency is responsible for administering court-imposed sentences and managing the country’s prisons.
Mr. Bernardo was handed a life sentence for the kidnapping, sexual assault, torture and murder of two girls: Leslie 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-partner, Karla Homolka. Ms. Homolka pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the crimes committed against Leslie and Kristen and was released in 2005 after serving a 12-year sentence. Mr. Bernardo also admitted to sexually assaulting 14 other women.
NDP MP Peter Julian said that between March and Mr. Bernardo’s May release, the government could have ensured that the victims’ families were warned. “How does this keep happening on such serious files? Why are they showing such clear incompetence? When will they fix this?” he asked in the House.
Mr. Holland didn’t address the specific questions but said Parliament as a whole should figure out how to avoid interfering in the independence of the corrections agency while also making sure “that a transfer of this nature does not occur.”
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre repeated his call for Mr. Mendicino to resign and said the government could act immediately by passing a private member’s bill that would keep all mass murderers in maximum-security penitentiaries.
“Will the government commit to passing it with unanimous consent and send Paul Bernardo back to a maximum-security penitentiary?” Mr. Poilievre asked.
The Liberal House Leader urged the opposition to wait for the corrections agency to complete its review.
The broader risk to the government now are the questions of competence stemming from the multiple cases of communications failures within the top levels of Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet.
“There’s a pattern developing around ‘I didn’t know, I wasn’t briefed, I didn’t receive that,’ “ said Lori Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration. She said that with multiple cases for the opposition to point to, their attacks become more persuasive with the public.
“This whole issue cries out for a response from the Prime Minister,” she said.
Nanos Research founder Nik Nanos said that while Canadians don’t expect to always agree with their governments, they do expect a level of sound management and the Liberals should be worried that a broader narrative will emerge that they are “not in control.”
Pressure, he said, will be on how Mr. Trudeau responds to the past few months of his government in which it has been regularly on the defensive.
“If he turns a blind eye to these situations, then these misfires will have an impact on him,” Mr. Nanos said.