Citation for Honourable Dennis O’Connor at the 12th Annual Eid-ul-Adha Celebrations at
Queen’s Park on December 12, 2008
Delivered by Paul Cavalluzzo
It is a real honour this evening to introduce Justice Dennis O’Connor who, over the last several years, has earned the enormous respect and admiration of people across Canada . His contributions to public policy, the law and human rights have been immense.
It is clear that Justice O’Connor made significant contributions to Canada in his professional career as a lawyer, law professor and judge.
In these various careers Justice O’Connor has shown particular compassion and respect for vulnerable groups of citizens when their concerns and interests have not been adequately protected by government. For example, in 1973 as a young lawyer he moved to the Yukon Territory and was appointed as a magistrate.
There, among people he respected and loved, within the Yukon’s small and fragile communities, he became an icon, so loved by the aboriginal people of the Territory that on June 5, 1976, he was introduced into the Tlingit (in English, “Klinkit”) First Nation, Beaver Clan. In that culture, a heavy emphasis is placed upon kinship and family. The name lovingly bestowed upon him was Old Crow.
Upon his return to Toronto , the Government of Canada almost immediately retained him to go back to the Yukon , this time to act as the Government’s chief negotiator in settling the delicate, centuries-old land claims of the Yukon aboriginal people. To this day, the people of the Yukon remember him as the first federal negotiator who really, truly, listened to their voice, and understood their need to be part of a framework of resolution that was at once fair, cooperative and humane.
After teaching and practising law for a number of years in Toronto he was appointed to the Court of Appeal in 1998 and in 2001 he became its Associate Chief Justice.
I got to know Chief Justice O’Connor in two public inquiries on which he acted as Commissioner and I acted as his Commission Counsel.
The first is the Walkerton Public Inquiry. As you know, public inquiries are normally called in the wake of a tragedy when the public has lost confidence in public agencies and institutions. Walkerton was such an example where contaminated water in May 2000 had caused the death of 7 citizens and the illness of 2,300 others in a town of 4,800 citizens.
Needless to say the citizens of Walkerton had lost trust in all public agencies – from the local government to Queens Park . Justice O’Connor’s challenge was to initiate some kind of reconciliation so that the citizens would have trust and confidence in the public inquiry. He did this in a number of significant ways. Before the hearings started, he travelled to Walkerton and held town meetings over a period of days. He listened to the citizens – in public and in private. They told him how their lives had been devastated by the tragedy. It was an amazing process to observe which could only have been carried out by someone with the kind of compassion, empathy and respect that Dennis O’Connor has. The town meetings were not only cathartic but were also the beginning of Walkerton’s trust in the Inquiry and Justice O’Connor.
The Inquiry hearings were long and very stressful. The issues were complex, contentious and controversial. However, one thing was clear at the end. In an era in which criticism of the legal profession is common, the lawyers performed splendidly.
They demonstrated a high level of competence in furthering their client’s interests while respecting the public interest by ensuring that the proceedings were thorough and expeditious. Much of this can be attributed to Justice O’Connor who had the enormous respect of every lawyer who appeared at Walkerton. Most importantly, the procedures and model that Justice O’Connor developed in Walkerton became the model and standard for future public inquiries. Walkerton revived public confidence in public inquiries.
Apart from the process, the Walkerton Inquiry was also very significant on a substantive level. Justice O’Connor’s recommendations received worldwide attention and respect. Environmental groups, municipal water operators, academics and other interested groups applauded his policy recommendations. The legacy is the Safe Drinking Water Act which the Government of Ontario enacted after the Inquiry. How did the people of Walkerton receive the report? One story will suffice. On the day that the report was publicly released in the Walkerton Arena, Justice O’Connor made a brief statement. At its conclusion, the hundreds of Walkerton citizens who packed the arena stood up and applauded and cheered many with tears running down their faces. It was quite a spectacle. The first time I have ever seen a judge get a standing ovation.
Now how could one improve on this remarkable achievement. One would have thought that after hitting a home run like this that one would not risk their reputation by tackling another difficult inquiry. Not Justice O’Connor.
In 2004, Justice O’Connor was appointed by the Federal Government to conduct a second public inquiry, the Arar Inquiry. As you know, Maher Arar is a Canadian citizen who was sent by the United States to Syria where he was imprisoned for a year and tortured and abused. Mr. Arar’s disturbing treatment, not only by foreign governments but also by Canadian officials, became the focus of this inquiry.
The Arar Inquiry was the most difficult legal challenge I have ever encountered. The question of the protection of national security without prejudicing our civil liberties is one of the most vexing and important legal issues we face today in light of the so-called global war against terror. The inquiry was the first time that any government had opened all of its national security records for independent review in order to assess whether the government and its officials had engaged in misconduct.
One of the problems Justice O’Connor faces was the alienation of our Canadian Muslim communities who felt that they were being targeted by Canadian police and intelligence agencies in their national security investigations. As a result, they had lost confidence in many Canadian agencies.
Finally the public forum was filled with leaked misinformation about Mr. Arar – leaks which were deliberately done to destroy his reputation and defend government interests. The clear implication of the leaks was that Maher Arar was a terrorist. Needless to say, Mr. Arar had little faith and confidence in Canadian institutions. Would he ever gain trust and confidence in this public inquiry?
With this backdrop, Justice O’Connor had to conduct a public inquiry into the national security activities of various Canadian agencies and officials. Much of the relevant evidence had to be heard in secret because of national security confidentiality. However, in order to have legitimacy and credibility, the process had to be fair to Mr. Arar even though he and his counsel would be excluded from secret hearings. Moreover, the public interest required maximum public disclosure because it was a public inquiry.
In order to achieve fairness and maximum public disclosure, Justice O’Connor developed a procedure which has been put forward as the constitutional standard for other judicial hearings into national security matters.
Although the procedure was not perfect, Mr. Arar and the other parties accepted the legitimacy of the process. Much of their trust and confidence in the process I believe, was based on Justice O’Connor’s integrity and fairness. They trusted he would get to the bottom of this story – and he did. The public trusted that the essential story would be publicly disclosed – and it was.
The final reports of the Arar Inquiry made significant recommendations which will fundamentally change Canadian public policy and law. The Part I Report deals with some of today’s crucial issues of civil liberties such as:
1. the appropriate role of the RCMP when engaged in national security activities;
2. appropriate controls on sharing of information on Canadians with foreign agencies;
3. applicable rules when Canadian agencies are dealing with foreign nations with poor human rights records, who may engage in torture and other human rights abuses;
4. racial stereotyping.
The Part I Report made 23 recommendations. The Government of Canada has stated that it has accepted and implemented all of these recommendations including settling Mr. Arar’s lawsuit without forcing him to go through a long trial. The Part 2 Report recommended a comprehensive, independent review mechanism for the RCMP and other agencies when engaged in national security activities. This Report was released in December 2006 and the Government is now considering the recommendations along with the recommendations of two other inquiries. Justice O’Connor’s reports have been very well received by Canadians and indeed have received world wide attention. The Americans are very interested in the report because it gives a graphic example of what can happen when an innocent person becomes caught up in their policy of extraordinary rendition. The European community used the report in some of the work done by a number of their legislative committees looking into illegal national security behaviour by their agencies. Finally. I am advised that the reports have been the topic of favourable and positive discussion in many Canadian mosques. Hopefully Justice O’Connor has gone a long way in helping to restore the trust and confidence which our Muslim communities have in Canadian government institutions.
These are achievements which most lawyers and judges can only dream of. Justice O’Connor’s contributions to the Canadian law, public policy and human rights have been fundamental and all Canadians will benefit from his achievements for years to come.
In closing, let me say that Justice O’Connor has all of the qualities which make a great lawyer, judge or public official. Qualities such as integrity, fairness, compassion, fearlessness and humility. These are the characteristics which underlie all of his achievements and why Canadians hold him in such high regard.