B.C.’s first public inquiry was in 1872 into $276.68 missing from a Nanaimo bank. The newest will be more complicated: How was $7.4 billion in dirty money laundered here?
B.C.’s first public inquiry investigated $276.68 that went missing from a Nanaimo bank in 1872, and wrapped up after three days with the three commissioners ordering the bank manager to repay the lost money.
Nearly 150 years later, B.C. is about to embark on its newest public inquiry, but this one is scheduled to last two years and will be far more complicated: an analysis of how an estimated $7.4 billion was laundered in 2018 through casinos, real estate, luxury car sales and other means.
Evert Lindquist, a professor in the University of Victoria’s school of public administration, said this inquiry will be weighty, not just because of the monetary scope, but because it will involve police, regulatory bodies and political ministries at provincial and federal levels.
“Public inquiries that look at those (multi-jurisdictional) challenges, and think about how better to move forward, are always good. There can be varying degrees of political pain in something like this that looks backwards and, in this case, perhaps some legal risks. But they are a good thing to do,” said Lindquist, whose areas of expertise include how governments address complex policy challenges.
The inquiry’s outcome will depend on the government resources it receives and the list of people who will testify, but he cautioned that it will inevitably leave some feeling disappointed.
“If everyone is looking for one person or one ministry or one entity to blame, they won’t be happy at the end of this. What they will learn is it is actually a tough problem with many facets to it,” Lindquist predicted.
A history of inquiries
B.C. has a rich history of inquiries and royal commissions that have tackled a wide range of subjects — some resulting in important policy revisions and others criticized for failing to make substantive change.
Nearly every commission that’s been struck since the province joined Canada in 1871 has been compiled by librarians at the provincial legislature in three chronological “checklists.” It appears B.C. has held more than 230 inquiries.
“The subjects of the inquiries are many and varied and the study of them throws interesting light on the development of the province,” assistant legislative librarian Marjorie C. Holmes wrote in the first checklist, spanning 1872 to 1942.
When B.C.’s second inquiry was launched in 1874, three Supreme Court justices examined allegations that Premier Amor De Cosmos and his attorney general “were in a ring to acquire possession of Texada Island, in a manner prejudicial to the interests of the public” to gain access to lucrative iron ore deposits. After collecting statements from high-profile witnesses, including Sir John A. Macdonald, who was between stints as Canada’s prime minister, the commissioners ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate the charges, Holmes wrote.
During B.C.’s first century, inquiries looked at the 1892 smallpox epidemic, Shaughnessy’s 1914 request to secede from the municipality of Point Grey, the 1958 collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge, which killed 19 men, and the 1971 Gastown riot, which led to several injuries, dozens of arrests and significant property damage.
After examining the riot, commissioner Thomas Dohm, who would later become a Supreme Court justice, found “police officers over reacted and used unnecessary, unwarranted and excessive force (with horses and riot gear) to disperse a mostly peaceful crowd of young people gathered for a marijuana ‘smoke-in,’” wrote legislature librarian Judith Bennett in the 1943-1980 checklist.
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The money-laundering commissioner
B.C.’s money-laundering inquiry will be overseen by B.C. Supreme Court justice Austin Cullen, a former associate chief justice who is now sitting part-time on the bench. Cullen recently presided over the high-profile trial of Garry Taylor Handlen, who was convicted of the brutal 1978 murder of 12-year-old Monica Jack near Merritt.
He has judged many murder and gang trials, as well as the 2016 bail hearings for a Surrey man accused of laundering millions of dollars, who is fighting extradition to the U.S. Cullen also testified in the 2010 Frank Paul inquiry because he was the prosecutor who decided not to press charges against two officers after the Indigenous man died in a Vancouver alley.
Cullen is to look at the full scope of money laundering in B.C., including real estate, gambling and financial institutions, as well as examine barriers to effective law enforcement.
He will have the power to compel witnesses to testify and to order disclosure of information. His final report is due May 2021.
Port Coquitlam mayor Brad West, one of the most persistent voices calling for this inquiry, said he speaks for the many “victims” who cannot afford to buy homes.
“I’ve spoken to so many people my age who have been dealing with the consequences of what has been allowed to happen,” said West, 33. “So many have given up on owning a home.
“I think we understand now that a big part of (this problem) is our province has allowed itself to be turned into the world’s dirty-money dumping ground,” he added.
An expert panel report released last week estimated home prices in B.C. increased by as much as five per cent last year due to money laundered through real estate.
Before calling this inquiry, the government commissioned reports from an expert panel led by a Simon Fraser University public policy professor, Maureen Maloney, and from a former deputy RCMP commissioner, Peter German.
While West hopes the inquiry will bring much-needed solutions, not everyone believes it will provide more answers beyond those two reports or be worth its estimated cost of between $10 and $15 million.
A 2016 academic study that analyzed 10 significant inquiries in Canada, though, found six resulted in direct policy changes; one brought more gradual change; and three led to very limited change.
Strong leadership and good relationships among inquiry players were common factors in the six successful hearings, wrote two Ryerson University politics and public administration professors, Gregory Inwood and Carolyn Johns.
“We disagree with the conventional wisdom which suggests COIs (commissions of inquiry) are no longer relevant or a useful part of the policy process. The facile charges that COIs are too costly, or that governments stage them only to ignore their recommendations, or that their findings are typically predetermined, do not stand up in light of the evidence,” says their paper, Commissions of inquiry and policy change: Comparative analysis and future research frontiers.
“Our analysis suggests that COIs are vital policy tools — if designed and used properly.”
The Frank Paul Inquiry
Kat Norris, a Downtown Eastside Indigenous advocate, lobbied for nearly a decade for an inquiry into the death of Frank Paul, who died of exposure after being dumped in a downtown alley by Vancouver police on Dec. 5, 1998. She was full of hope when the Davies Commission finally started in 2007, but was bitterly disappointed by the time it ended four years later because no one had been held accountable for his death.
“The bottom line is there was no real justice for Frank Paul simply because there was no one implicated,” said Norris, who today speaks to students about her experience as a residential school survivor.
Inquiries typically are not designed to find criminal fault. Cullen’s terms of reference for the money-laundering inquiry, for example, say any potential criminal evidence should be forwarded to police.
Still, Norris found it egregious that no officer ever faced charges in connection with Paul, who was also a residential school survivor. But at least the inquiry made his story public, she said. “In the eyes of the world, Frank Paul will never be forgotten.”
The Davies inquiry was partly responsible for the creation of the Independent Investigations Office, an oversight body to probe police in cases of serious harm or death. However, another key recommendation languished for seven years before government announced funding for a sobering centre — and Paul’s family has complained it is part of a detox centre and not a stand-alone facility, as Davies had suggested.
Leaky Condo Crisis
By contrast, James Balderson was quite pleased with the outcome of the 1998 inquiry into leaky condos, a cause for which he became a vocal advocate.
“It was very useful, very productive. Especially with respect to protecting the purchasers of new condominiums,” Balderson said of the inquiry, whose final report was called “Restoring Confidence.”
“I had been on a campaign to destroy confidence in the residential condominium market. … I think the inquiry did bring in major, major improvements that warranted the restoration of confidence.”
Former B.C. Premier Dave Barrett, who oversaw the inquiry into the quality of condominium construction, made 82 recommendations, including changes to building codes and requirements of design professionals. He also called for the establishment of a compensation fund for reconstruction and a provincial Homeowner Protection Office.
However, Balderson said he is still disappointed that condo owners like him — he paid $161,000 to fix his unit — were never compensated for their losses.
Robert Dziekanski’s Tasering Death
Other inquiries have also been applauded for bringing about sustained change, such as Justice Thomas Braidwood’s examination of the 2007 police Tasering death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport.
A corner’s investigation into Dziekanski’s death, which came after Braidwood’s report, found many of the inquiry’s recommendations had been put into place, including the formation of a legislative committee to look into changes to police training and use of Tasers. The coroner found Taser use by police dropped by 87 per cent between 2007 and 2011.
Zofia Cisowski, Dziekanski’s mother, has said she was “comforted” by the recommendations.
The four police officers involved in Dziekanski’s case were never charged in connection with his death, but two were convicted — and two acquitted — of perjury for lying during their testimony at the inquiry.
Two missing women inquiries
One of the most emotional inquiries in B.C. history, overseen by former judge and former attorney general Wally Oppal, looked at the many women who had disappeared from the Downtown Eastside and the failings of the police investigation into serial killer Robert Pickton.
CeeJai Julian, who escaped from the Pickton farm and was friends with several of his victims, cried in December 2012 when the inquiry ended, echoing the complaints of others — including Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs — that it fell short of expectations because Oppal had excluded some people from testifying.
“The Oppal inquiry, I was very disappointed in. The process didn’t include some of the families,” said Julian, who was also dismayed by the provincial government’s slow response to his 65 recommendations for change. “They didn’t fill all of them when they should have. That is the point of an inquiry: To right the wrong.”
Julian, now a peer support worker with Vancouver Coastal Health, said the recommendations brought more money for the women’s agency WISH and a better relationship with police in the Downtown Eastside. “But it is still pretty rough down there,” she added.
The province said earlier this year it had made “significant progress” on Oppal’s recommendations and would continue to take action to improve safety.
One suggestion that took a long time to implement was bus service along Highway 16 in northern B.C., where many girls and women have disappeared while hitchhiking on the isolated route.
Oppal, who has been involved in other commissions, such as a major examination of policing in B.C. in 1993, defended the missing women inquiry this week. He argued that police are now better at investigating missing women cases.
When asked for advice on the money-laundering inquiry, he said the B.C. government should set clear goals and a firm timeline to keep it on schedule.
“A lot of good things can come of them, but before governments establish inquiries, they should first of all ask themselves: What questions need to be answered? … And what are the powers that we’re going to give to an inquiry commissioner?” Oppal said.
“The other thing is you have to have a definite end line, otherwise it can go on forever.”
Julian has supported women testifying at the federal inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. She believes this missing women inquiry — longer and better-resourced than the B.C. one — will bring more positive change. The commission, which was launched in September 2016, is to release its final report June 3..
“I am more optimistic because it is national, it isn’t just B.C.,” Julian said.
“I’m hopeful. As long as I’m living there’s still hope.”
With files from Canadian Press
Notable Inquiries in B.C.
Since its first in 1872, B.C. has held more than 230 inquiries.
1885: A “new-comer” to B.C. tried to steal land in False Creek from two “Indians” with a forged document.
1894: “A long list of cruelties and abuses” at the Provincial Lunatic Asylum led to the firings of the superintendent and two other workers.
1906: A Victoria school principal lost her teaching certificate for three years for letting her students use a ruler instead of learning to draw a line “freehand.”
1917: “Grave frauds and irregularities” occurred when soldiers overseas voted in the B.C. Prohibition Act referendum.
1963: An inquiry into the price of gas recommended a five-year moratorium on any new gas stations in B.C.
1995: One of the most important B.C. inquiries: Judge Thomas Gove’s 1995 examination of the death of five-year-old Matthew Vaudreuil, who was killed by his mother, brought major changes to B.C.’s child protection service, including the creation of the Ministry for Children and Families. It would bring most services for vulnerable children under one roof. However, Gove became concerned in the late 1990s and early 2000s that both the former NDP and Liberal governments had stopped following some of his recommendations. The children’s ministry would later endure deep cuts and face several deaths of children.
1996: One of the least successful inquiries, the Bingogate inquiry was called in 1996 to investigate charges that an NDP fundraising arm, the Nanaimo Commonwealth Holdings Society, stole $2.6 million from local charities. A cabinet minister pleaded guilty to fraud in the scandal and then-premier Mike Harcourt resigned, although he was cleared of any wrongdoing. After six years and $6 million, the newly elected Liberals ended the inquiry in 2001 before it could make any recommendations, saying the commission’s work was not going “to contribute to our understanding of gaming in the 21st century.”
— Lori Culbert