The Commons: Vic Toews again imparts his judgment

The Public Safety Minister on the case of Ashley Smith

The Scene. After eight questions about other matters, the House returned to the serious matter of Ashley Smith.

“Mr. Speaker, in her 11 and a half months in federal custody, Ashley Smith was involved in 160 use of force incidents. She was subjected to a barrage of inhumane treatment: pepper spray, tasering, duct tape, and chemical restraints,” the NDP’s Randall Garrison recounted. “We know our correction system failed Ashley Smith, and we know the correctional investigator has put forward basic recommendations to prevent tragedies like this from ever happening again. Once again I ask the minister, will he commit today to fully implementing these recommendations on dealing with mental illness in our correction system so there are no more tragedies like Ashley Smith?”

It was Vic Toews’ responsibility to take this. “Mr. Speaker, this is a very sad case. Our thoughts go out to Ms. Smith’s family,” the Public Safety Minister offered. “This tragedy continues to show that individuals with mental health issues do not belong in prisons but in professional facilities. At the same time, our government continues to take concrete steps on the issue of mental health in prison. Since 2006, we have invested nearly $90 million in mental health for prisoners and we have taken action to improve access to mental health treatment and training for staff.”

The NDP’s Rosane Doré Lefebrve stood and seemed to suggest that a tragedy was not the word to describe Ms. Smith’s fate: that this was not an accident that couldn’t have been predicted. “In the case of Ashley Smith, and too many women with mental illness, you could see it coming,” she said. She then restated the question. “It’s been a week since the NDP has been asking questions about the subject, whether the Conservatives will implement the recommendations of the Correctional Investigator of Canada,” she said. “Will the Conservatives follow the advice of the Correctional Investigator of Canada, yes or no?”

Mr. Toews managed two sentences in response—”Mr. Speaker, we continue to work with the correctional investigator. We review all of his recommendations.”—before turning the matter on the NDP. Nine months removed from explaining that opposition MPs could stand with the Conservatives or stand with child pornographers, Mr. Toews now fretted that the NDP was insufficiently conscious of the victims of crime.

“However,” he segued, “I would note that the NDP, while consistently speaking on behalf of prisoners, never speaks on behalf of the victims of these prisoners. It never talks about the damage done to people outside of prisons. I wish New Democrats would take a more balanced view about what it means to have a safe society, not simply the individuals in the prisons but those who are abused outside of the prisons.”

There were noises of astonishment from the opposition side. Sylvain Chicoine, the New Democrat next scheduled to pose a question, stood up from the back row and waited for the Speaker to call on him, but the front row had apparently decided on the spot to make a line-up change. Nathan Cullen motioned for Mr. Chicoine to sit and alerted the Speaker that it would be Thomas Mulcair, seated to Mr. Cullen’s immediate left, who would go next.

Mr. Mulcair stood and looked directly at Mr. Toews. “Mr. Speaker,” the NDP leader asked, “is that minister capable of understanding that she was the victim here?”

The New Democrats stood to applaud the query and the sentiment contained therein. The Liberals soon joined them.

Mr. Toews was apparently undaunted. “Mr. Speaker, I have made it very clear where our government stands on that and I am very proud of the position that the Prime Minister took in terms of ensuring that our officials in Correctional Service Canada co-operate completely with the coroner,” he explained.

There was heckling from the opposition side. Mr. Toews pointed at Mr. Mulcair. “I would like to ask that member,” the minister offered, “who has never once stood and spoken for victims, why is it that he is always silent when it comes to victims outside of our prisons?”

Seated across the way, Mr. Cullen shook his head. Beside him, Mr. Mulcair nodded grimly.

The House moved on to other matters, but when the questions came back around to the Liberals, it was Bob Rae who stood up.

“Mr. Speaker, the Minister of Public Safety praised the Prime Minister for changing the direction of the coroner’s inquest in Toronto and for giving different instructions to Corrections officials than in fact took place,” the interim Liberal prefaced.

On this, Mr. Rae had three questions. “I would like to ask the minister very directly, why did he not issue these instructions months, indeed years ago? Why did lawyers for the Government of Canada consistently take the position that the coroner’s inquest did not have jurisdiction over critical issues facing Ashley Smith? Why would the minister have left this up to a statement by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons in response to a question from the opposition?”

In his seat, Mr. Toews unclipped a blue piece of paper from the binder in front of him. Rising to respond he seemed to stick mostly to his script.

“Mr. Speaker, we made it very clear that we want to ensure Corrections Canada co-operates fully with the coroner’s inquest,” he explained. “It was for that reason we made sure, through the Prime Minister’s statement…”

The Liberal corner laughed.

“.. that the arguments with respect to the limited constitutional jurisdiction of the coroner were no longer pursued,” Mr. Toews continued.

“In fact,” he concluded, “the coroner has the full ability to look into this particular case.”

Afterwards in the foyer, Mr. Rae departed from reporters’ questions about the American election to offer a bit of unrequested advice to the government side. “I thought Mr. Toews today really in reaching down way low in a partisan sense to try to score some partisan points with respect to the Ashley Smith situation I think he did himself and the government a real disservice,” Mr. Rae ventured. “I think it’s a situation that requires a different response from our ministers than we’ve seen.”

The Stats. Foreign investment, prisons, veterans and ethics, four questions each. Intergovernmental affairs, three questions. Government spending, the economy, union, fisheries, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, employment insurance and Canada Post, two questions each. Natural resources, forestry, air travel, the north, credit cards and the governor general, one question each.

John Baird, seven responses. Pierre Poilievre, six responses. Vic Toews and Denis Lebel, four responses each. Steven Blaney, three responses. Tony Clement, Gail Shea, Diane Finley and Steven Fletcher, two responses each. Peter MacKay, Peter Penashue, Kerry-Lynne Findlay, Joe Oliver, John Duncan, Ted Menzies and James Moore, one response each.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.