Collenette Resigns Defence Post

Even before his aides found the letter, David Collenette knew that his turbulent career as Canada's minister of defence was about to end.

Collenette Resigns Defence Post

Even before his aides found the letter, David Collenette knew that his turbulent career as Canada's minister of defence was about to end. Alarms about a reporter's access-to-information request for Immigration and Refugee Board file 007501 had reverberated last week through official government channels, from the federal board to the Privy Council Office. Finally, last Tuesday, the implications landed with a thud on the desk of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. At issue was Collenette's signature on a letter to the board last March that urged that "best attention" be given to the appeal of an ailing Toronto woman whose husband had been turned down for permanent residency status in October, 1995. By writing on his constituent's behalf, Collenette had violated Ottawa's ethics guidelines that forbid cabinet ministers from communicating directly with independent federal tribunals. When aides in Toronto found the matching original letter after a four-hour search through 1,600 immigration files, Collenette, his resignation letter in hand, spent an hour alone with his old friend Chrétien at 24 Sussex Drive on Thursday night. The next morning, he stepped down, precipitating a minor cabinet shuffle. "When you make an error of this nature," said Collenette, "one has no other recourse."

Despite the loss of a trusted senior minister from Chrétien's cabinet, Collenette's departure occurred at a convenient juncture for the Liberal government. Hammered daily by opposition critics in the House of Commons for his handling of the drawn-out Somalia scandal, Collenette was a visible reminder that the Liberals have a less-than-tidy house to present to voters in an election some insiders are pushing for next June. His replacement at defence by former human resource development minister Doug Young - a politically savvy troubleshooter with a short fuse - led to speculation that the Liberals are prepared to abandon their support of chief of defence staff Gen. Jean Boyle, implicated even further last week in the illegal alteration of Somalia-related documents. Still, the relatively minor nature of Collenette's so-called "inadvertent error" in the face of the larger, more damaging Somalia imbroglio raised suspicions about the Liberal government's motives. "The letter provides a convenient excuse for Collenette," said Reform defence critic Jim Hart. "They were obviously looking for a way that Collenette could leave easily. They found it." Added Bloc Québécois MP Suzanne Tremblay: "This smells of a pretext."

The shuffle will not change the Liberal political agenda. Told by his staff last Wednesday morning that trouble was looming, Chrétien summoned Young to 24 Sussex on Thursday night, satisfying himself that the New Brunswicker had fashioned the framework for the massive overhaul of Canada's social system. Only the next day did he offer Young the defence portfolio he coveted - a few hours before the swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall on Friday. Chrétien then reached past more senior Liberal MPs to promote Minister of International Co-operation Pierre Pettigrew, a rookie Quebec MP who was also responsible for relations with francophone nations, to Human Resources. And he pointedly turned to an Ontario francophone, government whip Don Boudria, a 12-year veteran, to fill Pettigrew's job.

But those changes are unlikely to remove the taint of Somalia that lingers over the Liberal government. Since his appointment to defence in 1993, Collenette has stumbled into one problem after another - most of them connected to the ill-fated peacekeeping mission to Somalia in 1992-1993. In the midst of brutal budget cuts, Collenette angered the military brass in 1995 by disbanding the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment, in large part for its involvement in the killing of a Somali teenage prisoner. But Collenette's stubborn defence of Boyle as late as last week discomforted even close political associates. On Friday, Young deftly distanced himself from the embattled head of Canada's military - neither criticizing his performance nor assuring his permanence. Said Young: "I'm not going to start off by pointing fingers and blaming people. I just want to do it better."

In fact, Maclean's has learned that two other avenues may give the Liberals the excuse they need to force Boyle to retire voluntarily. Defence department sources say that the Somalia inquiry is expected to recall Boyle later this month to explain new evidence that he approved a 1993 plan to alter military documents before they were released to the media. Last week, Roberto Gonzales, the military's former director general of public affairs, rejected Boyle's claim that subordinates conspired behind his back. Instead, Gonzales told the inquiry that he and Boyle, then associate assistant deputy minister for policy and communications, met twice in October, 1993, to discuss the alterations - meetings Boyle said he does not recall. According to insiders, the inquiry would follow Boyle's testimony with an interim, and likely critical, report. As well, federal Privacy Commissioner John Grace has told associates that he too may revisit the Somalia affair, with a second investigation that will include Boyle's involvement in the alleged tampering with documents.

Until last week, the conventional Liberal assessment was that Collenette, and perhaps even his personally favored appointee, Boyle, were safe - at least until the Somalia inquiry rendered its final report next year. Assured of Chrétien's unfaltering support, Collenette plodded ahead with the restructuring of Canada's demoralized military. By mid-October, he planned two "good news" announcements: the beefing up of the military reserves, as well as the introduction of a new system of military justice.

But those plans were dashed by a telephone call to Collenette's office at 4 p.m. on Tuesday from Chrétien's chief of staff, Jean Pelletier. The Prime Minister's Office had learned of an immigration document - with the name of the client and the date of the letter erased in accordance with privacy regulations - on the MP's constituency letterhead and, more importantly, with the defence minister's signature. Shaken by opposition furor over former heritage minister Michel Dupuy's written intervention to the CRTC in 1994 on behalf of a constituent applying for a radio station permit, the Liberal government ordered its cabinet ministers to steer similar requests through the newly created ethics counsellor. The ban on cabinet intervention, which had been limited to contacts with members of the judiciary, was expanded to all federal tribunals in 1995.

Ironically, Collenette said Friday that he did not remember the woman involved or what he had asked on her behalf. In fact, one of the four employees at his Don Mills office in northern Toronto wrote the letter to immigration chair Nurjehan Mawani. "It was a staff error and he took full responsibility for it," constituency assistant Ludovic d'Souza told Maclean's. Or, as Collenette himself described it in his seven-paragraph resignation letter to Chrétien: "I wish to assure you that my sole motive was humanitarian concern for my constituent. There was no ill intent, no partisan purpose and no question of personal gain in my letter."

It is not that the Liberal government expects any lasting ripples from Collenette's transgression. To the contrary, Chrétien suggested last week that his loyal friend will quickly return to cabinet - presumably in another portfolio. And Liberal strategists were gloating that Collenette, an experienced campaign organizer, would be free as a backbench MP to polish the party's battle plan for the upcoming federal election. In the end, Collenette's resignation may prove to be one more illustration of the Liberals' uncanny ability to turn an embarrassment into an advantage.

Maclean's October 14, 1996