TORONTO – An Ottawa judge who has overseen high-profile criminal trials connected with Canada’s political elite will now shift his focus to a northern Ontario community reeling from the deadly collapse of a local shopping centre.
Justice Paul Belanger will head up the public inquiry probing the partial collapse of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., provincial Attorney General John Gerretsen said Monday.
The 30-year judicial veteran will have a year in which to investigate the events leading up to the collapse, as well as the emergency response systems that went into effect after a section of roof came crashing through the building on June 23.
Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and 37-year-old Lucie Aylwin were killed in the collapse that also injured more than 20 others.
Gerretsen said Belanger’s lengthy career, sterling reputation within the legal community and fluency in both official languages made him the ideal candidate to lead a public inquiry in the bilingual community.
“We respect the judgements he has been involved in over the years, and we think that he’s the appropriate kind of a person to look into the whole Elliot Lake situation,” Gerretsen said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Gerretsen said cabinet is still determining the scope of the inquiry, which will be taking place at the same time as a criminal probe led by the Ontario Provincial Police. He declined to comment on what impact the two investigations would have on each other.
The provincial inquiry, he said, will probe the events leading up to the tragedy as well as the controversial rescue efforts that went into effect in the days after the collapse.
Both aspects have drawn sharp public criticism. Local residents have accused mall management of ignoring complaints about the condition of the mall, alleging a leaky roof and unsafe escalator were well-known features of the building that housed about 10 per cent of the city’s local commerce.
Safety concerns also plagued efforts to rescue those trapped in the rubble, with search crews forced to abandon the initial search due to the imminent threat of a secondary collapse. The operation was resumed after residents took to the streets in protest and Premier Dalton McGuinty intervened.
Gerretsen said the public inquiry is expected to raise questions about the role private owners play in maintaining their properties.
“What should the obligations be of private owners of establishments like this where the general public comes in,” Gerretsen said. “Should, for example, the safety measures be at a higher standard?”
A lawyer representing the mall’s owner has previously said his client poured $1 million into building renovations.
Mall owner Bob Nazarian and his company, the city of Elliot Lake and the provincial government have all been named as defendants in a $30-million class-action lawsuit launched by some local residents last week on behalf of all those who were hurt by the destruction of the mall.
Belanger will have a year from the start of the inquiry to sift through testimony and prepare his recommendations. Gerretsen said the inquiry is expected to begin in the next two months.
Belanger has a long and distinguished judicial career that began in 1978, Gerretsen said. He served as a senior judge for Eastern Ontario from 1984 until 1990 and as a regional senior judge for the Ontario Court of Justice from 1996 until 2002.
Belanger has presided over several high-profile cases. He’s perhaps best known for acquitting former federal privacy commissioner George Radwanski of criminal fraud charges in 2009. Radwanski resigned after it was revealed he’d racked up thousands of dollars in travel and hospitality expenses.
Belanger also presided over the trial of Andre Dallaire, who tried to assassinate former prime minister Jean Chretien in 1995 after breaking into 24 Sussex Drive. He was confronted by Chretien’s wife Aline, who went into the bedroom, locked the door and called the RCMP. Belanger found Dallaire guilty of attempted murder, but not criminally responsible.
The Progressive Conservatives said Belanger needs to begin his work as soon as possible to restore the public’s confidence in the province’s emergency measures system.
“I think one of the surprises that I had, and I know a number of other Ontarians had, was when our public safety minister came out and said there was nothing wrong days before the inquiry was called,” said Tory Steve Clark.
“I think all Ontarians and especially the people of Elliot Lake want those answers … We want Justice Belanger to work quickly and I think we all want to find closure on just why that happened.”
A New Democrat member of the provincial legislature said the families of the victims have many questions about what happened and why.
“Out of due respect for these families, we need to provide them with an opportunity to ask their questions so that they can follow through with the grieving process,” said Mike Mantha.
In Elliot Lake, mourners were expected to say their final farewells to one of the victims.
Aylwin, who was selling lottery tickets in the mall at the time of the collapse, will be laid to rest on Monday in a private ceremony for family members only.
Members of the public will gather later in the day for a celebration of her life.
_ With files from Maria Babbage.