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Chrétien’s nemesis is back – and that’s good for access to information

Remember Bill Clennett? He's the Quebec social activist who 20 years ago was protesting cuts to employment insurance whereupon he got his 15 minutes of fame. Then-prime minister Jean Chrétien, looking like an underworld don, grabbed Mr. Clennett by the throat and thrust him to the ground like a rag doll. The prime minister then moved on with a look that said, "Who's next?"

In the annals of prime ministerial comportment, has there ever been a moment more outrageous? The grainy photo of the encounter, with Mr. Chrétien in dark Terminator-style shades, was run around the world. Cosa Nostra Chrétien, as someone labelled him, had his Mountie detail with him that day in Hull, Que., but did their job for them, leaving Mr. Clennett minus the cap on one of his teeth.

It wasn't out of character for the street fighter, as Mr. Chrétien was nicknamed. In his youth and as a young lawyer, he engaged in many bare-knuckle brawls, getting the better of opponents bigger than the Quebec demonstrator.

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Though it is two decades on, Mr. Clennett hasn't gone away. He's made his way back for another 15 minutes, this time with Stephen Harper. No doubt this former prime minister would like to throttle him as well.

The case is one with serious legal and constitutional ramifications. Early last year, Bruce Cheadle of The Canadian Press reported that "The Harper government moved to retroactively rewrite Canada's Access to Information law so as to prevent possible criminal charges against the RCMP" for allegedly withholding and later destroying gun registry documents.

The legislative changes were buried in a 167-page omnibus budget bill and they exempted all records from the defunct long-gun registry to access seekers. Moreover, they were backdated to the time when the government introduced legislation to kill the gun registry, not to when the bill achieved royal assent.

Where Mr. Clennett comes in is with his role as the original requester of the registry data from which the dispute sprung. At a court hearing on the matter last year, he issued reporters a manifesto on the case.

In submissions to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice where the new law is being constitutionally challenged, no less than 12 of the country's 13 provincial and territorial information commissioners charged that the retroactive legislation undermines the rule of law and Access to Information systems across the country. In its brief, an appalled Criminal Lawyers' Association labelled the retroactive legal rewrite groundbreaking. "State actors obtain the benefit of a retrospective immunization that ordinary citizens have never obtained."

Complainants seek to repeal the law, which became effective last June. The Ontario Provincial Police had been investigating the actions of the Mounties until that time. Should the law be repealed, the OPP case could conceivably be restarted.

The Conservatives certainly appeared to be doing the Mounties a favour with the omnibus bill. The relationship between the police force and Mr. Harper's office has been the subject of many questions. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson raised eyebrows recently when he said the Prime Minister's Office under Mr. Harper made efforts to get access to the force's talking points before their public releases.

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The new Liberal government is now left to deal with the tendentious retroactive legislation case. It has pushed the start of the trial back a few months while it decides a course of action.

Mr. Clennett will be watching closely. In the matter involving Mr. Chrétien, he got little public sympathy, being portrayed in the media as a grubby professional protester. Only a couple of months before the confrontation in Hull, Mr. Chrétien's residence had been broken into by a knife-wielding intruder who made it all the way to the prime minister's bedroom door. Mr. Chrétien thus had reason for being on high alert when confronted by Mr. Clennett and angry Quebec demonstrators bearing bullhorns.

But in the case involving retroactive legislation, Mr. Clennett need not worry about public disfavour. He has played an important role in bringing to light what looks to be yet another abuse of power by our previous rulers. It's good he survived Mr. Chrétien's throttling.

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About the Author
Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More


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