10 janvier 2010



I post hereafter the Fourth Report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights presented on November 5h 2006:

39th Parliament, 1st Session 39e Législature, 1re Session
The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights has the honour to present its


Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), and a motion adopted by the Committee on Wednesday, November 1, 2006, your Committee recommends:

Whereas 2006 marks the 50th anniversary of the execution of Wilbert Coffin.

Whereas several observers, including former journalist and Senator Jacques Hébert, have shed light on irregularities surrounding the accusation, conviction and execution of Wilbert Coffin.

Whereas Wilbert Coffin’s sister, Mary Coffin, and his son Jimmy Coffin are seeking an official judicial review under Part XXI.1 of the Criminal Code.
That the government act with diligence and speed in the matter of the late Wilbert Coffin.

A copy of the relevant Minutes of Proceedings (Meeting No. 28) is tabled.

Respectfully submitted,


I shall also publish the proceedings of this Committee in two parts. I invite you to read what our members of Parliament had to say on this occasion. Many of you have assiduously read the documents that I have posted on this blog. I also know that for many of you, the Coffin affair is no more a mystery. I’ll let you discover the accuracy of the statements made by the members of that Committee regarding the Coffin affair. Please note that this report was adopted in November 2006. We are still awaiting a decision from the Department of Justice of Canada to take a decision.
Please let your feedback be known in posting your comments on this blog.

Committees of the House
Justice and Human Rights
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Mr. Réal Ménard (Hochelaga, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I move, seconded by my colleague from Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, that the Fourth report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, presented on Monday, November 5, be concurred in.
It will be readily understood not only that the debate that begins today goes back a long way for a very honourable family, a family who have spent their lives in the Gaspé region, the Coffin family, but also that it is a debate that reminds us how fallible and implacable our human justice system is.
With the execution of Wilbert Coffin in February 1956, a terrible injustice was committed. That injustice has had to be worn as a stigma by an entire group. As long as it has not been repaired, and the memory of Wilbert Coffin has not been restored, a family will not be able to find the peace to which it is entitled. In my opinion, we must all feel a duty to respond.
The Coffin case reminds us clearly of a way of doing things that, we must hope, will never return.
The manner in which he was detained and evidence was admitted, and the very unfairness of the trial, remind us clearly of how much things have changed and how sad it is that in 1953, 1954, 1955 and 1956 there were people who were deaf to the appeal voiced by many others, including the former journalist and senator Jacques Hébert.
I want to take this opportunity—and I am sure that my colleagues will join me—to thank the member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine. He has done his job as a member. He is the kind of member we like to see, someone who stays close to the people, someone who does not shirk his responsibilities.
I repeat: in the Coffin case, there is no statute of limitations, there is no chance that it will be forgotten and there is no possibility that time will erase the injustices.
What is this about? Three Americans who loved to hunt traveled to the Gaspé. The Gaspé played host to an impressive number of tourists at the time. Obviously, we hope that the Gaspé will continue to host large numbers of tourists, because it is one of the most beautiful places in Quebec, with all that nature has to offer, and all of the hospitality that the people who live there show to tourists.
Wilbert Coffin, a mining prospector, was the guide for a party of people who wanted to go on a hunting trip that was to last about ten days. These Americans had come here, to the Gaspé, to go on a hunting trip and to have a holiday that, we might think, they hoped would provide them with tranquility and relaxation. Members must remember that at the time, Americans were regular visitors to the Gaspé and tourism was a major industry in that region.
These hunters, namely an American by the name of Lindsay, his son Richard and a family friend, set up camp and prepared for their hunting expedition. A few days later, they were found dead. This resulted in Wilbert Coffin's arrest in August 1953.
That is when parliamentarians should step in.
That is when the mechanisms provided for in the Criminal Code should be applied to ensure that justice is done. Under section 696, one such mechanism may be set into motion when there are reasonable grounds to believe that a miscarriage of justice has occurred, that the process did not take its due course. There is a long list of irregularities, starting with the conditions of detention, with Wilbert Coffin being detained for dozens of days in conditions that were just plain horrible, where he was subjected to physical abuse and intimidation, was kicked around and assaulted.
Of course, the worst irregularity, which in and of itself should justify reconsidering the whole Coffin affair, was the ties between the prosecutor in charge of Mr. Coffin's case and Maurice Duplessis' government. We recall and point out that Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis, the member for Trois-Rivières, was also the attorney general. As we know, in his capacity as attorney general, Maurice Duplessis directed not only that Coffin be found guilty, but also that he be executed because they did not want the tourism industry in the region of Quebec where this affair took place, namely the Gaspé, to be adversely affected.
Not only did Wilbert Coffin's last two counsels—he changed counsel along the way—did not summon any witnesses, but they did not even allow Wilbert Coffin to take the stand to explain his version of the facts. They arranged the entire defence submissions without Wilbert Coffin having a chance to speak.
Such unfair rules, which constitute a denial of the most fundamental principles of natural justice, would immediately result in a stay of proceedings and a new trial, if this happened under today's rules.
Not only was Wilbert Coffin denied a fair trial and the opportunity to take the stand, not only was the crown prosecutor in connivance with Premier Duplessis, but Coffin was not even allowed to give what is now known as proof of his good repute.
Obviously the Coffin family, which had lived in the Gaspé for many years, could have had friends and acquaintances testify for Wilbert Coffin, a mining prospector who had spent his life in the Carleton area of the Gaspé. These witnesses could have testified about how this man was such a law-abiding citizen. No one is saying he did not have any faults—everyone has faults—or that he was not one to party a little bit sometimes, but to make a criminal out of him for it is totally unacceptable. Some of the evidence was withheld and some investigative tools were not used.
The Coffin case is a stigma, a black mark on the administration of justice in Quebec. I can completely understand that Wilbert Coffin's sister, Mary Coffin, and his nieces and nephews and his son, Jimmy, will never rest or be at peace until the memory of Wilbert Coffin has been restored.
On October 25, when I tabled the motion in the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, I asked this section of the Department of Justice, which is independent from the minister—I know—and handles judicial review, to use the new evidence, under section 696 of the Criminal Code. I know that my colleague, the hon. member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, is going to talk about new facts that have come to light, so that we can engage the process, ask for a new trial, ask the Court of Appeal to intervene and restore the memory of Wilbert Coffin.
That is what this House is entitled to ask the Minister of Justice to do.
The Coffin family is entitled to ask Parliament for this restoration. I believe this has gone on for far too long. As long as justice has not been served, as long as we have not exposed the despicable way things were handled, when the attorney general of Quebec interfered in the administration of justice, we cannot be proud of ourselves. We expect reparation as soon as possible.
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Hon. Marlene Jennings (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, this is the first time that I have risen as the official opposition critic to speak about a report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. It is a real honour for me to support the report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights in response to a motion that was tabled before the committee by my hon. colleague, the Bloc member for Hochelaga, and subsequently passed by the committee.
Although I am a Quebecker, I was obviously not aware of the Coffin affair at the time when it was happening because I was too young, barely a year old. Since then, though, the story has resurfaced in the media and the consciousness of Quebeckers every 10 years. There is a consensus now in Quebec on this cause célèbre. People think that the police investigation and the trial were botched and an injustice was done to Mr. Coffin.
My hon. colleague from Hochelaga related a few of the facts. Mr. Wilbert Coffin was arrested and accused of murdering three Americans. A man named Eugene Lindsey, his 17-year-old son and a friend of his son had come to the Gaspé to hunt, and one month after they had left the United States, they were found dead very close to their truck. A police investigation was launched.
As my hon. colleague from Hochelaga mentioned, this happened in a tourist area and the government was eager to ensure that Americans, who accounted for most of the tourism, would not be frightened away. Therefore, a number of little schemes were hatched.
The most touching aspect, though, is the fact that at that time in Canada, there was still capital punishment for first degree murder. Mr. Coffin paid the ultimate price. He paid with his life for what was probably a parody of justice.
In my opinion, Canada's elimination of the death penalty is a good thing. Guy-Paul Morin, Donald Marshall and David Milgaard were also the victims of judicial errors during their trials. When they were each convicted of murder, the death penalty had already fortunately been abolished. The ultimate penalty was 25 years of imprisonment before any chance of conditional release. That said, they spent nearly 25 years of their lives in prison before society, through the government, acknowledged the judicial error, recognizing that they should not have been convicted because they were innocent, and before they were released.
Unfortunately, Mr. Coffin did not have this opportunity, because the death penalty existed. Mr. Coffin's trial was so full of irregularities that I believe the government, through its Attorney General and Minister of Justice, should immediately act on the committee's report and recommendation. It should ask the criminal conviction review group to thoroughly review the file and make a recommendation to the minister following their investigation, that is, to dismiss the application for a judicial review and to proceed with a new trial, or to submit the case to the Court of Appeal.
The Liberal Party supported this motion in committee and supports this motion here in the House. We call on all members to support the motion debated here today and to push this government to act quickly, so that some light can finally be shed on this file.
I will not speak much longer, but I do wish to insist how important it is that we no longer have the death penalty. Should the minister put into place the group which will revise the case and which can then say that it merits a new trial or it merits the court of appeal to examine it, and in fact Mr. Coffin is found to have been wrongfully convicted, we cannot bring him back.
Thankfully, when the wrongfully convicted Guy Paul Morin, Donald Marshall and David Milgaard were convicted, there was no death penalty, so once we recognized and established the wrongful convictions, we have been able to make some reparations. It will never be sufficient but we have been able to do that.
Happily for Steven Truscott, who was convicted when the death penalty still existed and was condemned to be executed, because of his youthful age, only 14 years old, there was a public outcry at the thought of Canadian society and Canadian government executing him, and the government commuted his sentence to life. He therefore now has the possibility before the courts to determine whether in fact he as well was wrongfully convicted.
Wilbert Coffin has not had that opportunity and we as parliamentarians and as Canadians have to ensure that his family has the right and the possibility that all light be shed on the entire affair from the police investigation, to the actual trial, to the conduct of the attorney general, to the conduct of the crown prosecutor, and possibly that of the premier at the time, but definitely in terms of the legal process, in order to determine whether or not Mr. Wilbert Coffin was wrongfully convicted.
I and most Quebeckers are convinced that in fact he was wrongfully convicted, so I ask members to vote in favour of this concurrence motion.
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Mr. Raynald Blais (Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, first, I would like to thank the member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine for her contribution to the discussion of this subject which is very close the hearts of residents of the Gaspé and the Îles-de-la-Madeleine and, of course, to the members of the family, who are in my thoughts right now. They came to my office about a year ago to ask that we pursue this matter to shed light on this case and, if possible, to clear the name of Wilbert Coffin.
I hope that the Conservative government will have something to say on this matter. I believe that it has a responsibility in this case. As the member for Hochelaga has said, there is a black mark on the history of the Gaspé, and also on the life of Wilbert Coffin and the history of the Coffin family.
In my view, the current government now has a responsibility to shed light on this case. I am very glad to have the member’s support, and I imagine that she now expects a great deal from the government, specifically, how it intends to deal with this matter.
We need to move quickly. I would say that the murder of Wilbert Coffin, because murder it was, took place February 10, 1956. The 50th anniversary is next Saturday. The crime took place 53 years ago and there were witnesses. The witnesses are no longer with us. Each passing day makes a review more difficult. For that reason, I imagine that she is waiting for news from the government.
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Hon. Marlene Jennings:
Mr. Speaker, I do expect a lot of this government, as do all Quebeckers in fact, and as does the Coffin family. We are right to expect a lot of this government. It is a government whose prime minister, ministers and parliamentary secretaries and all of whose members constantly tell us that they will stand up for justice and to fight crime. But the crime is sometimes committed by the state itself, as we have seen in the cases of David Milgaard, Guy-Paul Morin and Donald Marshall, and as I am convinced we have seen in the Coffin case. Unfortunately, the Coffin family will never be able to have the stain wiped away completely. Mr. Coffin's reputation may perhaps be restored, but he was executed, he paid the ultimate price for something that was a judicial error, a botched police investigation, as we are convinced.
On that point, I know what I am talking about; I was a member of the police commission in Quebec. I had to preside at public inquiries into allegations of police misconduct. The allegations are not always true, but still I have had to make that decision myself in the case of someone who was sentenced to life imprisonment; I had to assess the police investigation. This was not the police in the Gaspé or the Sûreté du Québec, it was a municipal police force in another region of Quebec. The police force, the prosecutor and I prepared a report that made it possible for the inmate to go to the Court of Appeal. That Court quashed the conviction and ordered a new trial, and with the evidence in the hands of the police commission, that man was found not guilty at his new trial. I know what I am talking about when I say that sometimes mistakes are made.
We believe that a mistake was made in this case. Unfortunately, Mr. Coffin paid with his life. Let this government at least offer the family some comfort by acting speedily. "Speedily" means setting up the review group immediately so that it can conduct its investigation. That group will then have to make recommendations to the Minister of Justice, who will have to decide whether to go to the Court of Appeal or whether there will be a new trial. We are waiting. This is a government that pats itself on the back and says it is always in action. Let us see the action this time. It would be the first time.
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Mr. Guy André (Berthier—Maskinongé, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I listened the Liberal member and my colleague from the Bloc. There is no doubt that we are touched by that story which happened many years ago. The Coffin case remains one of the most controversial case in Canadian criminal law.
I would like to ask the hon. member if she thinks that the Conservative Party, which has 10 elected members in Quebec, should play a more important role in the debate and see that justice is done. It seems to me that the government is advocating law and order in our society and in all of Canada. Almost half of the bills introduced so far relate to law and order, crime and criminal law. We have seen many and varied bills. I think that it would be important to serve justice in the Coffin case. I would like to hear the hon. member on that.
[Table of Contents]
Hon. Marlene Jennings:
Mr. Speaker, I am very surprised that not one Conservative member from Quebec has yet spoken on the issue. I would have expected the hon. member for Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, who is a member of the Standing Committee on Justice, to take this opportunity to express his opinion on the issue. I find it unfortunate that he remained silent.
However, I am glad to speak for my party, the Liberal Party of Canada, and particularly for the Liberal members from Quebec.
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Mr. Myron Thompson (Wild Rose, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, having emigrated to this country in 1968, I am not all that familiar with this entire situation. I noticed in the fourth report that some people had come forward and did shed some light on irregularities surrounding that particular case. It is unfortunate if there was wrongdoing of any kind, and I am certainly in favour of trying to correct these things later.
I remember the Milgaard case and cases like that. These wrongs have to be corrected. I do not have any problem with that. It is too bad that the political nonsense has to come into the debate, like what I heard from that member about how those guys over there who promote being tough on crime and all that are not the ones who are going to or can do anything. I get tired of listening to that coming out of their mouths all the time from that side.
However, I want to know, when was some of this light shed on these irregularities? This particular crime or incident took place 50 years ago. How long had there been suspicions that there were irregularities? Am I to understand that it was only this year and that the Conservative Party is to blame for the fact that nothing has been done? It was just brought out this year. Surely there must have been more information earlier. I am quite confused about the timeline. If the member could straighten me out on that, I would appreciate it.
[Table of Contents]
Hon. Marlene Jennings:
Mr. Speaker, first of all, if the member finds that I was playing with partisanship with regard to the member for Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, I learned it from the Conservatives, who never cease to say that Liberals are soft on crime when in fact we are smart on crime and we are effective on crime and the reasons of crime.
However, let me provide the information that the member for Wild Rose asked for. Mr. Coffin was arrested in 1953. He underwent his trial. He was found guilty. He was convicted in February 1956. Jacques Hébert, who was a senator and is now a retired senator, was a journalist at the time and followed the case very closely. As a result of his own investigation, he wrote two books, one in 1958, Coffin était innocent, and then in 1963, J'accuse les assassins de Coffin.
As a result of evidence that he at that time was able to uncover, there was a royal commission inquiry in 1964. The judge heard over 210 people, including the juries at the time, and confirmed the procedure and the verdict, but since then, more information has come to light in recent times. That is what we are asking--
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The Acting Speaker (Mr. Royal Galipeau):
Resuming debate.
Is the hon. member for Wild Rose rising on a point of order?
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Mr. Myron Thompson:
Mr. Speaker, I just want to point out that what I am trying to get at is this constant saying that the Conservative government now is not doing anything about something that, it almost seems, had just come to light. It has been going on for a long time. Where were the other governments? Why was something not done?
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The Acting Speaker (Mr. Royal Galipeau):
The hon. member for Wild Rose is rising on a point of debate, not a point of order.
Resuming debate, the hon. member for Windsor—Tecumseh.
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Mr. Joe Comartin (Windsor—Tecumseh, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I wish to commend the member for Hochelaga for introducing this motion at the Standing Committee on Justice, which has resulted in the report before us this afternoon.
I want to say to the member for Hochelaga, because I have heard this before and I say this as a practising lawyer who followed the Coffin case from the time I was very young, that much like the Truscott case in Ontario, which was seven or eight years after the Coffin case, I believe Canadians right across the country were concerned about the adequacy of our criminal justice system in the Truscott case and similarly in the Coffin case.
There is no question that a great number of issues have been raised. It is important to point out that, as recently as September of last year, the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted took up the Coffin case. In addition, in the last few months the federal government has finally recognized the need to investigate this, and the Criminal Conviction Review Group is now investigating it.
In terms of some of the specifics, much like other members, I cannot help but juxtapose the Truscott case with the Coffin case. If the Coffin case had gone through the criminal justice system in the early to mid-1960s, I cannot help but wonder if his conviction would have been overturned or, at the very least, if the order for the death penalty imposed at the time of the trial would have been dispensed with and he would have been given a sentence of life in prison, like Mr. Truscott received, therefore preserving his life.
I want to make a significant point: for the first time, a case of wrongful conviction is being considered after the person is deceased. I think it is important that this occur given the discrepancies. There are all sorts of very clear and strong allegations of overt partisan political interference in the province of Quebec at that time, by as high an office as that of the premier and certainly of the attorney general. The conduct of the prosecutor in the case is certainly suspect, from what we are getting from the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. Also suspect is the role the defence counsel played and how he came to be involved in the trial.
We can look back at it and say that if we had not had the death penalty Mr. Coffin would probably still be alive, and perhaps his wrongful conviction, if in fact that is what ultimately comes to the fore, would have been dealt with a long time ago. Similarly, when we look at some of the facts of what occurred in the defence in that period of time, if we had had a legal aid plan at that time perhaps the results would have been significantly different.
There is no question that as a Parliament we could simply sit back and say that we are going to allow the Criminal Conviction Review Group to do its work. The problem is that the parameters within which this group works and its mandate under the code are much more restrictive than the mandate the government could assign to a judicial inquiry.
For instance, the issue of how much interference there was at the political level could be raised much more extensively, if in fact it was there and it had some significant consequence in the way this trial was handled. The review group has a much more limited mandate in terms of investigating that. I could point out several more issues that could be more properly dealt with under the Inquiries Act than would be dealt with by the review group.
What can happen is that the review group can recommend that this matter be dealt with in the form of an inquiry by our courts. What I am really suggesting, and I believe this is to some degree the theory behind the member for Hochelaga moving this motion in committee and doing so now before the House in the form of this concurrence motion, is that we try to speed up the process so that the inquiry could be appointed now by the government. It could get under way immediately, have a broader mandate to get at the truth, and hopefully overturn what most of us believe is an injustice.
There is obviously no way of adequately compensating Mr. Coffin post-death. The very minimum we can do is rehabilitate his reputation and in effect say to the family, his son and his wife, that yes, the criminal justice system in Canada failed them, we are acknowledging that, we are apologizing for that, and we are rehabilitating the reputation of their husband and father.
It seems to me that adopting this motion would be a way for the House to say that we want this process speeded up and this is a better way of doing it. I would urge all members of the House to support the motion.
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Mr. Raynald Blais (Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask a question of my NDP colleague who just spoke.
I would like to point out that there is currently a public servant at the Department of Justice studying this matter and eventually he will make his recommendations to the minister. We do not know exactly when this will take place nor what he will recommend. However, we have a pretty good idea. We also do not know what the minister's decision will be.
I believe it is important to note that, during the debate, the government did not venture an opinion or convey any message. To date, I have not heard from the Conservatives and I may not hear from them. I hope this will not happen because it would be irresponsible to remain silent about such a process at this time.
The government is now being asked, by means of the House of Commons, to act quickly. That means to speed things up. It does not make sense to wait any longer. These are people who, in time, will no longer be with us. We are also dealing with the memories of the family, of the people from the Gaspé who firmly believe in the innocence of Wilbert Coffin.
The speech by my NDP colleague has reassured me as to his party's position. I believe the government would be acting responsibly by stating its position soon on this matter.
Do they want to speed up the process, yes or no? Do they want to shed light on the matter, yes or no? This is what we are debating today. I am disappointed that I am not hearing from those in government. I would not want what we are doing to be considered partisan politics. That is not at all the case. We are partisans of justice and nothing else. It would be quite natural and normal to hear from the Conservative members on this matter, just as we heard from the Liberal members and the NDP member, who spoke so eloquently a few moments ago.
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