Maclean’s, CBC and the Postmedia newspaper chain intend to challenge a sealing order this week on an affidavit said to contain explosive allegations—claims that sent a discernible shockwave through the courtroom when they became known to the parties.
The affidavit was provided last Thursday during the civil trial of Sgt. Peter Merrifield, an officer who has sued the RCMP for alleged harassment, breach of fiduciary duty and abuse of authority on the part of his superior officers.
Upon receiving the document, along with other affidavits, Justice Mary Vallee of the Ontario Superior Court in Newmarket, Ont. ordered everyone but the main parties out of the courtroom, had the doors sealed and instructed those present not to disclose or discuss the affidavits’ contents.
She then ordered the documents filed that day sealed from public view and adjourned Merrifield’s trial until May. Court transcripts of the discussion about the sealing order have also been sealed.
Merrifield, a 17-year veteran of the RCMP, emerged from the court looking dazed, while Department of Justice lawyers, representing the RCMP, could be heard arguing in an anteroom not long after the adjournment.
Justice Vallee must now consider whether the man who submitted the affidavit can testify as a witness for Merrifield—something federal lawyers argued strenuously against. She is expected to rule on that issue within weeks, if not days.
Maclean’s is not reporting what it has learned about the details of the affidavit. But the magazine, along with CBC and Postmedia, is challenging the sealing order on the grounds that there is compelling public interest in having it open for all to view.
“We are going to court to tell a story we believe is of great public interest, one which Canadians are entitled to know,” said Mark Stevenson, Maclean’s editor. “Maclean’s is interested in issues of public policy and accountability, and this is an important one.”
The filing of the affidavit marked an unexpected turn in a trial that had already delivered a few bombshells, including the revelation that one of the officers who allegedly harassed Merrifield was himself picked up in a 2006 john sting in London, Ont.
The claim had been ridiculed by RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson during a Senate committee appearance last year. But Paulson—who last week answered a subpoena to testify in the case—was presented while on the stand with a London city police report that appeared to bear the allegation out.
Merrifield also testified that two fellow RCMP officers repeatedly interfered with a gun-smuggling investigation he was overseeing in 2007 by discouraging one of his confidential informants from working with him.
It is that man whose eligibility as a witness is now at issue. Federal lawyers are asserting privilege that allows them to exclude confidential informants from testifying, while Merrifield’s lawyers say this case is different. The man is not the government’s witness, they note, adding that he was only briefly an informant, seven years ago, and should now be treated as any other witness.
Supt. Paul Hebert, the officer overseeing the Merrifield suit for the RCMP, declined comment about the affidavit outside court last week, citing the sealing order.
This story was updated, adding the CBC to media organizations challenging the seal on the affidavit.