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Major urges cabinet to react swiftly on security report

After finally publishing volumes on how to fix Canada's national-security system, inquiry commissioner John Major left Ottawa this week to relax at home. He urges Canada's Conservative ministers to cram in some serious reading before they follow suit.

"If they can't give an answer this week, they can give an answer next week," the retired Supreme Court judge said from his Calgary law office on Friday. "Let's take them at their word they haven't had a chance to read it. It's a detailed document, so give them the benefit of the doubt. But a week is plenty."

The Tories were non-committal on Mr. Major's recommendations as the government released his 4,000 pages of findings on the Air India bombing Thursday - one day before Parliament recessed for the summer.

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The volumes arrived on the 25th anniversary of the Air India bombings. Four years ago, the Tories appointed Mr. Major to answer why the system failed 331 people killed by terrorists who largely escaped justice.

Then newly retired from the Supreme Court, he had just sold his Ottawa home to return to Alberta, Mr. Major lived out of a suitcase at the Minto Suite Hotel as he and his counsel delved into the Ottawa bureaucracy, in a tireless quest for documents and answers.

"We had to dig it out ourselves," he said, adding that Ottawa's reflexive secrecy delayed his mission. Now that he's finally home, he is eager for a government response. "We're talking about the security of the country."

Some fixes, he said, can be made quickly if there is sufficient political will. Others will be uphill fights against the bureaucracy. "I'm not holding my breath to see that happen," he says of one proposal to get the RCMP out of municipal policing. "Time will probably run out on me before that."

He's 79 now, but in the 1970s he was a mid-career lawyer attending the McDonald Commission, the inquiry that urged a new civilian spy agency be created from the RCMP. A decade later, while working in Alberta, he came to know a colleague whose very name gives security agents conniptions today.

"I knew Stinchcombe, he comes from Calgary," Mr. Major said. "He seemed like just another guy making his living at the courthouse."

In the 1980s, police arrested lawyer William Stinchcombe on embezzlement charges, withholding from him crucial documents that might have proven his innocence. His cries of unfairness were upheld at the Supreme Court of Canada, a year before Mr. Major joined it. In 1991, the court decreed that police must give accused all potentially relevant documents.

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The interpretations of these twin developments - the creation of the clandestine Canadian Security Intelligence Service in 1984, and the Stinchcombe case in 1991 - have helped cripple Canada's national-security system, Mr. Major suggested.

The Major inquiry finds that CSIS and the RCMP are not working together, and the problem goes beyond infighting. The spies don't want their secrets revealed in court, yet the RCMP and CSIS feel the Stinchcombe ruling leaves them both exposed if they team up. The implicit consequences of this - a system that fails to apprehend terrorists -are potentially catastrophic.

Security agencies "can say they're much better, but they're still not good," Mr. Major said.

He proposes many fixes for Ottawa, but says his colleagues on the bench are going to have to change too. He argues they have to peel back on document disclosure and better safeguard some state secrets.

But ultimately, the Conservative government's will is key to making necessary bureaucratic changes. "The head honchos just don't believe anyone knows more than they do," Mr. Major said. "There is no way to break a logjam, so you have to come up with a different system."

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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