Updated: Jan 16, 2021
When Blamed and Broken was published two years ago this week, it was an emotional watershed for me personally. I was elated to pull back the curtain on my careful and critical analysis of what still remains the most notorious and notoriously misunderstood case of a police in-custody death in Canada.
I was also anxious. Because I’m a journalist.
More than two decades ago, my conscience weighed heavy the night before my first story breaking open a startling political conspiracy. I’d discovered a plot to steal the Manitoba provincial election that was hatched in then-Premier Gary Filmon’s office. Filmon’s chief of staff phoned me in one last-ditch effort to make me second guess what I knew to be true from months of painstaking research. Her appeal was excoriating. She told me there was no story. She said it would be a “one-day wonder”. I listened and disagreed. Then she hit me with something I couldn’t deny: “you’re going to ruin peoples’ lives”, or something very close to that. I had spent months nailing down every detail. I was as certain about the facts as I was about my own name. Yet I still agonized. I took no joy in telling a story that would put people on trial. That investigation taught me not only that politicians and their surrogates can and do lie to your face, but also that the institutions on which we all rely to ensure truth and integrity in such things as elections, had utterly failed and then tried to cover up their failures. If I didn’t come forward with the true narrative, why was I a journalist?
At one point Filmon himself paid a visit to the biggest private radio station in Manitoba and called for an investigation…into me. Notwithstanding his series of false and defamatory claims about me, he was never forced to recant or apologize. Filmon’s lawyers focussed their efforts, not on addressing the illegal and unethical election-rigging, but on trying to discredit the journalist. Sound like anyone you’ve heard about? Filmon’s bank of lawyers held open the threat I could be sued. Although every stitch in the hair shirt Filmon found himself wearing was right and true (and frankly impeccably sewed) I’ve never shaken the feeling that came from being a target just for setting the record straight.
Where am I going with this twenty year-old “war story”?
As an investigative journalist I have always lost sleep on the eve of revealing hidden words, deeds and consequences that some want hidden. And so, two years ago this week, as I welcomed the critical acclaim for Blamed and Broken, I was also hyperaware that a countdown clock had begun for anyone who felt aggrieved by its pages. I knew that for some of the characters I wrote about - including lawyers and judges – suing me might be something they could do in their spare time. As a hobby. For me it would be financially devastating and psychologically arduous just to go through such an ordeal and prevail, as I knew I would. But it wasn’t lost on me that I’d just written a detailed examination of how two men went to prison and two men were acquitted based on the same theory that all four had colluded to coverup their role in a death. Prevailing or prison, appeared to turn on the opinion of a particular judge.
This week a small but not insignificant weight was lifted from my shoulders. The clock ran out on the statutory two-year limitation period to claim that anything in Blamed and Broken’s three hundred-odd pages was off-side. There’s been no legal objection. I’m also not aware of any comment or reaction from any of characters who might even conceivably have found it unfair or unflattering. I don’t doubt the silence may have been intentional to deprive Blamed and Broken of oxygen in the hopes it would die, as Filmon’s chief of staff so disdainfully put it, “a one-day wonder”. Two years on, the book has precipitated and influenced significant re-examinations of the narratives that sent two men to prison and branded four as liars and worse. I’ve written here extensively about many of the developments that flow directly from the book. Seeing as it’s two years old, I think it’s worth adding up some of the ways it played a part in setting the record straight.
Not long after publication, Department of Justice lawyers settled a lawsuit filed by Bill Bentley, the first YVR officer to have been roundly acquitted of perjury. Apparently Blamed and Broken so rankled the government that the actual book with its distinctive red cover was banned from the negotiation room.
Next came moves by the government to settle lawsuits brought by Monty Robinson and Gerry Rundel, even as both publicly alleged a litany of illegal actions they believe tainted the public inquiry into what happened and prejudiced the criminal cases against them. They succeeded in convincing a unit of the RCMP to investigate their complaints that senior Mounties had committed misconduct, but the chief investigator said he had no intention of reading Blamed and Broken, because it was, as he put it incorrectly, just “opinion”.
Whatever he found was never been revealed or shared with the complainants, who kept demanding transparency. And so it was that last year the RCMP referred the entire matter to the OPP for a full-blown criminal investigation, something Robinson and Rundel had asked for from the start. Towards the end of 2020, OPP investigators (who did read the book) flew to B.C. during the height of the pandemic to conduct critical interviews with Robinson, Rundel and others. The investigation, dubbed Operation Eastbourne, is the first time senior leaders of the RCMP have found themselves under criminal investigation for obstructing justice. The targets of the allegations include former Commissioner Bill Elliott, current Commissioner Brenda Lucki, B.C.’s deputy commissioner Jennifer Strachan and her predecessor Brenda Butterworth-Carr. To be clear, this is an investigation into unproven allegations. For a sense of why these individuals figure in the complaints, read Blamed and Broken, just as the investigators did. You have some time. It could easily be another year before the OPP is done its work.
Although Rundel was acquitted in his criminal trial, Robinson served a good part of a two year sentence behind bars and was required to complete a relatively severe 240 hours community service for essentially the same thing Rundel was acquitted of: lying in order to mislead investigators about Dziekanski’s death. I spend a good deal of time in the book explaining this bizarre judicial result, but it bears repeating because it's so hard for people to comprehend: two people were imprisoned on the basis that they conspired with two others who were themselves found not to have been part of any conspiracy.
Both Rundel and Robinson have also relentlessly pursued a trove of exculpatory documents held by the RCMP using Access to Information laws. They’ve each won judgements from Canada’s Information Commissioner slamming the Mounties for failing to turn over what they should. But the RCMP has a pile of scolding letters from the Information Commissioner it’s received over the years. It’s just another one for the pile. So Rundel began his own action in federal court to compel the RCMP to comply.
Last Spring I revealed that Kwesi Millington, the officer who fired the Taser the night Dziekanski died, had reached a financial settlement in his lawsuit against the Force. On Monday this week – coincidentally on the eve of Blamed and Broken’s second anniversary - the B.C. Supreme Court quietly noted Millington fulfilled a part of his secret deal with the government, which was to dismiss his claims against the RCMP. Millington had alleged - among other things – that senior RCMP leaders had defamed him by tacitly and explicitly suggesting to the public that he was guilty of using excessive force, reprehensible conduct, and had inappropriately met with his fellow officers before giving a statement to homicide investigators. There is simply no evidence of any such meeting, but the claim would be perpetuated by prosecutors and go on to figure in his conviction and that of Monty Robinson. Millington had alleged he’d lost his career, his reputation, received threats, and suffered PTSD and depression directly because of the RCMP. Among the things Millington got for dropping his lawsuit – aside from some money – was a letter from the RCMP endorsing his future bid for a "pardon". Millington has a long, uncertain wait ahead of him. The parole board of Canada doesn't grant pardons, per se. It can issue a record suspension which effectively hides it from anyone searching CPIC, the Canadian Police data base. But because Millington's conviction was for an indictable offense, he has to wait ten years after the end of his sentence to apply. His toddler will be a teenager. The only true pardon is one granted by the Governor in Council under section 748 (1) of the criminal code. That would wipe the conviction away as if it never happened.
Whatever value the RCMP's letter has, it is now privately vouching for someone it publicly branded a bad apple, raising even more questions about the RCMP’s role in throwing all four under the bus when the tide of public opinion seemed to demand it. Robinson and Rundel, who instigated the ongoing criminal investigation, have yet to hear of any government offer to settle with them. Rundel sees the letter supporting Millington’s potential pardon as more misdirection.
“If the RCMP were truly sincere in assisting with pardoning Kwesi” he told me, “then why not come out publicly and say so?”
“Bill and I were acquitted and still the RCMP would not come out publicly (and support us)”.
Robinson sees the pardon letter as a tacit admission that senior RCMP leaders know the mistakes the YVR officers made in their statements were neither “strikingly similar” suggesting collusion, nor evidence of any attempt to cover up a death witnessed by dozens and caught on video.
“If the prosecutions and convictions were lawful then there would be no reason for the RCMP to provide a letter in support of an application for a pardon or settle” Robinson told me.
“The letter does not absolve them for conduct that is now the subject of criminal investigations by the OPP. It is just evidence to their culpability in scapegoating us.”
When Blamed and Broken found its way to readers, I had a modest expectation that it might cause people to reconsider the findings of the public inquiry lead by Thomas Braidwood. Braidwood died last year and his opus branding Bentley, Rundel, Millington and Robinson as four “patently unbelievable” and “self-serving” liars, went unchallenged. Now it seems even the RCMP is retreating from Braidwood’s narrative. Privately, at least. It’s possible the investigation by the OPP may force a more public reckoning, in time. The true story, however, is available now. It was published two years ago.