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Proceed with Fantino charge

Lee Prokaska
The Hamilton Spectator (Jan 14, 2010)

It would be a huge and potentially dangerous mistake if a privately laid charge against OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino does not proceed past a court date tomorrow in Cayuga.

That's not based on any assumption that Fantino is guilty of influencing or attempting to influence municipal officials in Haldimand County. It is based on the importance of ensuring that justice is not only done, but also it is seen to be done.

In the quagmire that the Caledonia situation has become, it is too easy to be swept along by gossip, rumour and innuendo. And there is certainly enough of all three when it comes to the behaviour of the OPP in Caledonia.

Superior Court Justice David Crane ordered last month that a charge be laid against Fantino, despite the earlier refusal to do so by a justice of the peace. The private charge, instigated by activist Gary McHale, arises from an April 2007 e-mail Fantino sent to Haldimand County Mayor Marie Trainer and other councillors. The two-page letter stated members of council were not to support public rallies led by McHale or make statements in support of him to Caledonia residents. In the e-mail, Fantino also said he would recommend the OPP contract with the county not be renewed if council members expressed support for McHale.

Prosecution of that charge is in the hands of the Crown. Staying or dropping the charge are certainly options for the Crown, but vigorous prosecution of this charge is the right thing to do.

It is important the allegation -- and Fantino's defence against it -- be fully and fairly aired in a public courtroom. It is certainly important for those who live in Caledonia, but it is also important for all Ontario residents. Ensuring such a public airing is also in the best interests of the OPP, the provincial government and Fantino, all of whom have faced persistent criticism for their handling of the Caledonia issue.

A perception of two-tiered enforcement of the law has been an explosive and divisive issue in Caledonia since shortly after natives occupied the former Douglas Creek Estates in early 2006. The fact the OPP's approach to Caledonia has been strongly influenced by the desire to avoid a tragedy similar to what occurred at Ipperwash has not lessened the criticisms levelled by non-natives.

The simplistic view of the charge would be that this is a "gotcha" opportunity, that the outspoken Fantino should be forced into trial mode simply because he is the commissioner of the province's police force. But that's not the point, and it must not be permitted to overtake the crucial public interest in this case. It's clear there is no love lost between McHale and Fantino, but this must not be personal.

It must, however, be fair. It must be thorough. It must serve the broader public interest. It must demonstrate that alleged bullying of elected officials will be taken seriously. It must show Ontario residents no one is above the law -- not even the boss of the law enforcers.

And a trial would certainly be more helpful than the gossip, rumour and innuendo that will continue to swirl in the absence of a trial.

Editorials are written by members of the editorial board. They represent the position of the newspaper, not necessarily the individual author.