OTTAWA – Ontario and Alberta are pushing for more federal recognition of their witness protection programs as part of a national revamp of the patchwork system intended to shield those who risk their safety to co-operate in criminal cases.
Provincial concerns — including frustrations in obtaining identity changes for protectees — are key to a long-promised federal remake of witness protection, documents and interviews reveal.
The federal witness protection program, administered by the RCMP, provides measures ranging from short-term protection to permanent relocation and identity changes. The Mounties spent more than $9 million on the program in 2011-12.
However, several provinces have their own programs, often providing short-term assistance.
The federal government has been working for several years on changes to the RCMP-led program following recommendations from a Commons committee and the commission of inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing.
A primary suggestion was making the federal program more independent.
The Air India commission said it was inappropriate for a police agency with an interest in ensuring sources agree to become witnesses to also make decisions about admission into a witness protection program.
“This is a conflict of interest,” said the commission’s 2010 report.
In late 2009 and early 2010, the federal government consulted the provinces and territories on the program, and documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act show a number of provinces expressed concerns.
The Alberta government, in an April 2011 note to the federal Public Safety Department, called for amendments to the federal witness protection legislation to recognize provincial and territorial programs.
It also lamented the fact that protectees in provincial witness programs must be admitted, at least temporarily, into the federal program before being given new federal identity documents.
Alberta noted that municipal police agencies had trouble gaining such temporary admissions for secure name changes, adding the process often took a long time in any event.
“The facilitation of secure identity changes for provincial and territorial programs would be a welcome addition,” says the note. “Experience shows that this has been one of the biggest obstacles in conducting effective long-term relocations of witnesses.”
Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, echoed Alberta’s concerns.
“We continue to urge the federal government to amend the Witness Protection Program Act to eliminate impediments to providing members of Ontario’s program with safe and timely access to new federal identity documents,” he told The Canadian Press.
“We also continue to press the federal government for changes to the federal Witness Protection Program that would improve the co-ordination between the federal and provincial programs.”
Though the Conservative government hasn’t yet come forward with changes, it has committed to drafting agreements between the RCMP and its federal partners to simplify the process of obtaining documents needed to give someone a new name.
It has also promised better training for co-ordinators and handlers of protectees and introduction of changes to ensure “more transparency and accountability” concerning decisions as to who gets into the witness program.
Jonathan Denis, Alberta solicitor general and public security minister, said his ministry is studying the federal plans. “We’re reviewing their proposals right now and we’ll draft a position,” he said in an interview.
At a recent meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers for justice and public safety, Ontario led a discussion of further changes to the Criminal Code to better protect witnesses as they give testimony.
The idea is to expand existing provisions to allow more people to testify outside the courtroom, behind a screen or by video conference when intimidation is a factor, said Saskatchewan Justice Minister Gordon Wyant.
Otherwise, some people “may be inclined to give false testimony or not testify at all,” he said in an interview.
“The provinces stood together on this and the federal government understood it as well, and I think you’ll see some further review.”