Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What Happened at the Meeting With John Foran, Minister of Public Safety

Hon. John Foran, NB Minister of Public SafetyToday we met with the Minister of Public Safety John Foran in Fredericton along with his Deputy Minister, Michael Comeau and Assistant Deputy Minister, Marc Leger. Also present was another person who never identified herself but we assume she must have been the Minister's Director of Communications.

We were there to talk about the "Worst Coroners Act in Canada", the New Brunswick Coroners Act.

Accompanying us to the meeting was Debbie Harquail, whose sister Leona Harquail was the subject of a Coroners Inquest last year. Debbie has been highly critical of the Inquest process, which she says failed her sister Leona. She is very supportive of our struggle to have the Coroners Act changed. She knows better than anyone else exactly what happens at a Coroners Inquest and can speak from personal experience about its shortcomings.

As you will read below, we realize that there is no chance the Coroners Act - which is 110 years old this year - will be changed in time for the Inquest into the death of our sons Daniel and Javier. We have accepted that it's not going to happen in the next two weeks.

But that doesn't mean the Minister cannot commit to making changes to the Act in the future and most importantly, undertaking a comprehensive review of the Act, with a view to bringing it into the 21st century - like most other provinces have done. When we asked the Minister if he would consider a review of the Act, he said NO, he cannot commit to a review of the Act.

However, we know that governments, and Ministers, are like the changing seasons. They come and they go, reliably, and with a regular frequency. Time will tell when this Act will change, but if there is one thing that everyone connected with this issue can be certain of, is that we will NEVER GIVE UP. In fact, we have only JUST BEGUN. The Inquest begins in two weeks. We have a lot of work ahead of us and one of our main goals is to make sure that everyone knows how flawed New Brunswick's Coroners Act is and how it is, unfortunately, going to fail our boys miserably.

This is what our media liason, Jim Lavoie, said to the Minister at the meeting, word for word. It is the exact same thing he read to the media at the press conference that was held at the Crown Plaza earlier in the afternoon.

Meeting with the Minister of Public Safety
April 15, 2009

I am Jim Lavoie, and I am going to speak about the changes that Isabelle, Ana and Debbie want to make to the Coroner’s Act.

First of all, I’d like to make it clear that I have no stake in this case, other than as a friend of Isabelle and Ana, and today I have just met Debbie Harquail. They have asked me to speak on their behalf.

We have your letter of March 11 and there are a number of points that you raise which we must retort.

 First, you say that the government does not intend AT THIS TIME to amend the Coroner’s Act to provide standing to interested parties.

 Second, you say that that the existing legislation is entirely adequate to ensure juries make fully informed recommendations.

 Third, you say that it meets the needs of New Brunswickers even though it is 110 years old.

The reasons you give are that existing procedures present no barriers to getting at the true circumstances of a death. You also say they present no barrier to articulating recommendations.

We completely disagree. Here is one very strong example as to why people like Isabelle, Ana and Debbie need standing at a Coroners Inquest.

As “interested parties” who have to submit questions to the Coroner, Isabelle, Ana and Debbie can tell you how difficult, if almost impossible, that task IS for the ordinary, person with no legal background.

It takes a superhuman effort, for someone like them, with no training, no understanding of laws, rules, regulations, and policies to try to decipher the jargon of the legal profession and to make sense of it so they can ask a question that actually gets to the root of the matter.

Isabelle and Ana have had to become almost experts in the Education Act, the Motor Vehicle Act, the Transportation Act, the Coroners Act, the Fatal Accidents Act, not to mention the ever-changing menu of policies, rules and regulations.

It is a David and Goliath effort.

In comparison, the Coroner has a team of professionals on his side to help him during the Inquest. He also has access to documents, for example, the RCMP Report of November 12, 2008, which has been denied to Isabelle and Ana and which Isabelle had to request under the Freedom of Information Act through her lawyer at her own cost. There is no telling when she will receive this report. It is unlikely she will get the report before the Inquest.

The RCMP says there is confidential information in the document which they cannot see. What is that supposed to mean? These are parents who buried their children. They have seen the worst that can possibly happen and they are not afraid of what might be in a report. They do not need to be protected from anyone.

This just proves that they need the help of a lawyer to navigate their way through the Inquest. They have no idea what the Coroner is doing except what he chooses to tell them from time to time and that isn’t much.

They have nobody to help them formulate their questions without spending thousands of dollars on a lawyer.

This is not a level playing field in any way whatsoever and to imply that it is by saying everything is all right is disingenuous.

Unlike the Coroner, Isabelle, Ana and Debbie had nobody but themselves to rely upon in developing their line of questioning and the sheer determination not to give up because to do so would be to betray the memory of their loved ones.

I have to give it to them. They have done an incredible job, no thanks to the government or any one else. They have become experts despite all the roadblocks in their way.

I have more than twenty years experience in the Federal government in program management dealing with policy and I can’t figure out these legal documents.

I don’t know how these women have managed to get as far as they have without giving up entirely.

We know that time and circumstances change government attitudes and actions. Certainly, when the Ontario government changed its Coroners Act it had its naysayers too.

So too did all the other provinces which have updated their Coroners Acts.

Time changes everything and Isabelle, Ana and Debbie have lots of time, the rest of their lives in fact, to lobby for changes to New Brunswick’s Coroners Act and you can be sure that is exactly what they intend to do. Long after you are back in civilian life, if this Act has not been changed, you will still be hearing from Isabelle, Ana and Debbie.

We therefore, take your statement in the most positive fashion to mean that there may be a time in the future when you do intend to amend the Coroner’s Act to provide standing for interested parties like Isabelle, Ana and Debbie.

We also take it to mean that there will come a day when jury’s recommendations are binding, because, we are sorry to say, we do not agree with you whatsoever in your defense of that practice. It is indefensible with so many lives at stake.

We know that you are going to have to face the day when the Coroners Act has to be changed. It might not be you. It might be another Minister of Public Safety, but we have started the ground work now, and we are starting this whole discussion with you on that premise. It has to change and it’s going to change. It’s just a matter of time.

Only New Brunswick, Yukon and Newfoundland have not updated their Coroners Acts. Seven provinces and three territories have.. We are not experts, but we know that there are plenty of experts on staff at the Law Reform Branch who can understand and interpret the laws that have changed in those provinces and territories over the years and who can, under your direction, undertake a comprehensive review with a view to reforming the NB Coroners Act, as has already been done in all the other provinces.

It is the first step - a comprehensive review of the NB Act with a view to updating - as has been asked for many times by the Canadian Bar Association, New Brunswick Branch. We know that as recently as last April, 2008, that the NB Branch wrote to you personally with a suggestion that could have easily started the province on this path of law reform. I quote the letter from David O’Brien, which was written on the eve of the passage of Bill 48, an Act to Amend the Coroners Act.

1) To amend Bill 48 to create standing for victims and other interested parties at inquests, and;
2) Initiate a comprehensive review of the Coroners Act with a view to modernizing as almost all other provinces have already done.

It is too late now to Amend Bill 48 as it has already passed without the CBA’s suggested amendments above. It was a missed opportunity. However, that does not preclude you from introducing an amendment to the Act to create standing and or initiating a comprehensive review of the Act.

We know that you are reluctant to update the Coroners Act. However, we know that time changes everything. In two weeks, your department and the province of New Brunswick will be under a national and international microscope when the Coroners Inquest into the deaths of Javier, Daniel, Codey, Nathan, Justin, Nick, Nicky and Beth. We will be there every day and we will be speaking out every day on the need for changes to the Coroners Act and for a comprehensive review.

Every day we will have another reason to tell the world why New Brunswick’s Coroners Act is outdated and needs to be brought into the 21st century and we intend to make sure that the world knows that this Inquest is doomed to fail right from the very start.