The value of inquiries into Caledonia and eHealth

Letter - The Regional

by MPP Toby Barrett

October 13, 2010

"...launching a commission of inquiry is a risky process - a bit like sending a ship out to sea. You don't know where it will go, how long it will take, how much it will cost or what it will bring back."

- Larson Associates

The above quote introduces a recently published book by Ed Rafushney titled, The Conduct of Public Inquiries.

Ratushney defines a commission of inquiry as a body created by government to make inquiries and report to the government its findings and any related recommendations. A commission can require people to testify and produce documents. It may only report and recommend. It cannot adjudicate disputes or determine rights.

Quite recently, Opposition Leader Tim Hudak called for an inquiry into Ontario's eHealth boondoggle, and on September 30th government troops were rallied once more to reject Attorney General Critic Ted Chudleigh's call for a public inquiry into Caledonia. Public inquiries have been long established as a means to separating fact from fiction and reality from fantasy - but we will have some time yet to see the truth revealed about Caledonia and eHealth.

According to Thomas Lockwood's "A History of Royal Commissions", inquiries became an established feature of English administration towards the end of the 11th century - think of the massive Doomesday Book completed in 1086.

Today, we find Ontario commissions of inquiry empowered to obtain information for government to implement and develop policy, educate, sample public opinion, and investigate judicial or administrative branches. They are often organized in the wake of public concern in an effort to uncover the truth.

Another option to uncover the truth includes informal inquiries - often overseen by individuals or "task forces" - that unlike more formal proceedings have no power to require testimony.

One of the most important aspects of a commission of inquiry is the maintenance of impartiality and fairness without personal or political bias. To ensure public confidence, it's essential the commissioner "set the tone", by treating all involved even-handedly and with sensitivity.

It was sensitivity to the Walkerton situation that led the O'Connor commission to engage the community and work with residents and officials alike within weeks of being struck. Within two months of the commission being struck by the Harris Government, it was hearing directly from those impacted. Further extensive hearings were held over a nine month period. Justice O'Connor lived right in Walkerton for the extent of the hearings.

It should be noted, again according to Ratushney, "A provincial commission may not be used to investigate individual criminal conduct, because criminal law and procedure are the responsibility of the federal government. But a provincial government may establish a commission to inquire into public concerns about the criminal justice system of that province."

Given the tradition of public inquiries in unearthing the truth, I question the McGuinty Government's reticence to allow unbiased impartial eyes and ears to see and hear the testimony of those forced to continue to live with the impacts of the four-an-half year old Caledonia dispute, or who have seen a billion of their tax dollars go down the eHealth drain.