The Missing Women inquiry is another in a series of costly train wrecks

Ottawa has spent nearly $200 million on seven inquiries. So, are we getting our money’s worth?



The train wreck of the Missing Women inquiry in Vancouver once again raises the question of whether this process—in the words of former Supreme Court justice Willard Estey—has been “abused beyond usefulness.” Estey spoke those words in the mid-1990s, after the federal government shut down the inquiry into actions of Canadian soldiers in Somalia.

Yet the appetite for this unique blend of justice and theatre lives on. Democracy Watch, the Ottawa-based government accountability group, maintains on its website a list of 18 “questionable situations” in federal affairs, whose only remedy, they say, are public inquiries.

One hates to differ with organizations dedicated to accountability. They’re so rare. But a quick calculation reveals that Ottawa has spent nearly $200 million on seven inquiries of national import, dating back to the early 1990s:

• Somalia, $25 million

• Tainted blood, $15 million

• Arar, $27 million

• Air India, $30 million

• Dziekanski, $4.5 million

• Schreiber-Mulroney, $16 million

• Gomery, (take a breath) $80 million

This total does not include compensation for victims. In some cases, it does not include legal costs incurred to the taxpayer such as counsel for impugned public officials.

Nor does it include the cost policy-based royal commissions like the $15-million Romanow Report on health care, or provincial ones like the inquiry into sexual abuse in Cornwall, Ont., whose $53 million price tag forced the Ontario government to rethink its entire inquiry process (Dziekanski was called by provincial authorities, yet involved federal agencies like the RCMP and border services).

So. Are we getting our money’s worth?

In a few cases, like the Krever inquiry into tainted blood and Arar, the cost seems bearable, if not a bargain. Victims and their families get their say. Meaningful change stands in plain view. From time to time, heads roll.

In others, not so much. Anyone who figured the Gomery Inquiry would send a jolt of rectitude through political circles has long since been set straight by the “in-out” scandal, or the Harper government’s G20 spending extravaganza.

Moreover, these days, internal controversy or questions of fairness tend to overshadow an inquiry’s road map to reform. Yes, there’s always a vague hope that the exercise will serve as a warning to the negligent and venal in the future. But as the Missing Women case illustrates, that hope is fragile. From this point on, the inquiry led by Wally Oppal is itself on probation. Its next lapse might well condemn it to irrelevance.

That’s not to throw the whole model overboard. Like democracy, it’s the worst system except for all the others. Still, with public dollars in short supply, it could use fixes—greater reliance on reports rather than testimony; less reliance on lawyers; limits on legal fees.

Governments, meanwhile, would do well to ponder before commissioning their next set of proceedings: under what circumstances do inquiries materially change the behaviour of individuals and institutions? Do those circumstances apply in the case at hand? Is the matter best left to the courts?

Last but not least, do you, as a government, really need a specially commissioned judge to tell you to do the right thing?



The Missing Women inquiry is another in a series of costly train wrecks

  1. “Yet the appetite for this unique blend of justice and theatre lives on.”

    Key to understanding Canada is that we are controlled by left wing people – it explains inexplainable. Self criticism beloved by communists around the world and that’s why public inquiries in Canada will be around for a while yet. 

    ““ Criticism and self-criticism,” or inner-Party struggle as it is sometimes called, has always been a major mechanism of inner-Party decision making and discipline among Chinese political elites, but during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution it emerged as a form of mass mobilization and education as well.”

    • Funny thing.   I’d rather not spend taxpayers’ money on public inquiries.  Absolutely, if we could hold our government to account without one, I’m all for it.  Majority governments have all the power though, so its kind of hard to expect them to hold themselves accountable.  It used to be that in a minority government, we could rely on answers in Question Period to get to the bottom of things.  But now that there ARE no answers, whether majority or minority, the only way to get a check and balance on power that corrupts is this type of thing.  I expect we’ll have to somehow push through a new law that says inquiries are called at the pleasure of the opposition, not the government, and we will see a whole lot more of them, spending a whole lot more tax money each time.

      But then, democracy is priceless.

      • I think it would be better if inquiries were called at the “pleasure of the taxpayer”.  We could do it like BC did their HST vote….majority of “voters” decides…that would be true democracy.

  2. These outlandish cost were caused by the powers that be using public funds to protect the powers that be. You forgot the BC Rail cover-up by the way that tally is still growing and the public inquiry on what the (dirty word) happened will be money well spent, expect to see private as well as Federal money being poured in to stop what can’t be stopped.


  3. Charlie Gillis fails to mention a key point that Democracy Watch makes on the linked page: which is that the Inquiries Act must be changed to allow an inquiry to be initiated if a majority of federal party leaders want an inquiry, and that a majority must also agree to the terms of reference, and the commissioners.

    One of the main reason past inquiries have failed is that the ruling party only chooses whether there will be an inquiry, and sets the terms of reference and chooses the commissioner(s) (who are often chosen to not do their job properly and well).

    In any case, it is usually better to have an inquiry than to ignore or sweep corruption and rot under the rug.

    Hope this helps,
    Duff Conacher, Board member
    Democracy Watch

  4. I don’t really see much in the way of considered reasoning in the above. We spent money, it didn’t change everything for the better. Therefore, it’s a waste of money

    I would argue that, in general, inquiries have far more public trust than 308 chapters in the Book of the Underwhelming and the Mediocre that we elect every few years. That alone gives is a value that is largely absent in the House and in its committees. Yes, our governments in general need a commissioned judge to tell them to do the right thing. They clearly won’t do it themselves and we’re too lazy on the whole to make any attempt to hold them to it. I’ll take an imperfect commission any day.