By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa
As confusion reigned about who was informed that notorious serial killer Paul Bernardo was being transferred to a medium-security prison, the head of Canada’s federal prison system wrote to Public Safety Canada officials insisting the appropriate notification protocols had been followed.
Emails released to The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act appear to show Correctional Service of Canada Commissioner Anne Kelly was not clear on how or why Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino had not been informed before Bernardo was moved out of maximum security.
The public safety minister and his staff have been under heavy scrutiny over the past month as more details have emerged about the timeline of the prison transfer. The Conservatives have demanded that Mendicino resign over it.
The emails show Kelly herself wrote on May 26 to Public Safety Canada’s deputy minister Shawn Tupper and associate deputy minister Tricia Geddes.
“I had said I would confirm the transfer with you. It will occur next week,” Kelly wrote in an email with “High Profile Offender” in the subject line.
She told them the federal Public Safety Department, Mendicino’s office, the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office “have been advised” and that “we have media lines ready.”
Tupper replied just minutes later to thank Kelly for the confirmation.
Bernardo is serving a life sentence for the kidnapping, torture and murders of 15-year-old Kristen French and 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy in the early 1990s near St. Catharines, Ont. He was also convicted of manslaughter in the December 1990 death of 15-year-old Tammy Homolka, the younger sister of his then-wife, Karla Homolka. Bernardo also ultimately admitted to sexually assaulting 14 other women.
Karla Homolka pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was released in 2005 after completing a 12-year sentence for her role in the crimes committed against French and Mahaffy.
Bernardo spent nearly three decades in maximum security — first at Kingston Penitentiary and then Millhaven Institution near Kingston, Ont. He was transferred to medium-security La Macaza Institution, about 190 kilometres northwest of Montreal, on May 29.
The reasons for the transfer have not been made public, with the correctional service citing privacy issues.
But when news of the move went public on June 2, Mendicino took to social media to share his outrage. Mendicino, a former federal prosecutor, described the transfer as an “independent decision” made by the correctional service. He called it “shocking and incomprehensible.”
He said he planned to raise “the transfer decision process” with Kelly and expected the correctional service to “take a victim-centred and trauma-informed approach” in such cases.
The documents show Kelly wrote directly to Mendicino on the afternoon of Sunday, June 4.
“Hello minister, saw your tweet,” Kelly wrote. “I remain available to meet with you.”
Mendicino responded within 10 minutes: “Yes, we’ll co-ordinate a call.”
In a brief statement, Mendicino’s spokesman said his office made Kelly’s agency aware of the minister’s tweet before it was posted.
“CSC was informed of the minister’s statement through appropriate channels, before it was issued,” wrote Alexander Cohen.
The next day, Mendicino told reporters that he had spoken with Kelly and told her that he was “profoundly concerned and … shocked by this decision.” The correctional service then said the decision to reclassify and transfer Bernardo, which was made according to a legislated set of criteria, was under review.
Two weeks later, the correctional service said it had first told Mendicino’s office about the possibility of a transfer in early March and then again in late May after a date for the move had been set. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was briefed on May 29, the day the transfer took place, while Mendicino has said he found out the next day.
A spokeswoman for Mendicino’s office has confirmed it was first asked about Bernardo’s possible transfer by a staffer in Trudeau’s office, who learned of the matter from the Privy Council Office, the secretariat that supports and advises the federal cabinet.
The newly released documents show Kelly wrote back to Tupper and Geddes on June 6 to check whether Mendicino’s office had been advised of Bernardo’s transfer, as she was being asked the same question by the clerk of the Privy Council.
“I understand from my staff that someone at (the Public Safety Department) said (the minister) had not been notified,” she wrote in an email with the subject line “PRIVATE — Transfer.”
“We have a notification process in place as you know and we certainly followed it.”
In a statement Tuesday, CSC repeated that Mendicino’s office had been notified about the transfer. The agency also said the Privy Council Office asked whether the minister’s office was notified, and it provided confirmation.
Mendicino has acknowledged his staff made a mistake in not informing him, but denied it was done to intentionally keep him in the dark.
The minister has not divulged how he went uninformed, but has announced plans to issue a directive saying the public safety minister is to be told of such transfers directly.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Mendicino should issue a similar directive to ensure people convicted of multiple murders, like Bernardo, must serve out their entire sentence in maximum-security prison.
The Liberal government has insisted it needs to be careful not to interfere with the independence of the correctional service — a position with which criminal justice experts and other lawyers agree.
The Correctional Service of Canada said it’s still reviewing theBernardo’s transfer and will inform the public of the results “at the earliest opportunity,” spokesman Kevin Antonucci wrote in an emailed statement.
“While the additional review is being prioritized in a timely way, it is also important that this is done in a thorough and complete manner to help provide Canadians with answers to the questions they have.”
Tim Danson, a lawyer representing the French and Mahaffy families, has said they want the decision reversed, adding it happened around the anniversary of Leslie Mahaffy’s kidnapping and death.
Mendicino’s office said Public Safety Canada would also provide a statement Tuesday about the newly released documents.
Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 4, 2023.