Cornwall Public Inquiry lead commission counsel Peter Engelmann speaks with the media Thursday at the Weave Shed.
The countdown to the end of the Cornwall Public Inquiry has officially begun.
Late Wednesday, the province handed down strict orders to the commission, through an amended order-in-council, that the final witness must leave the stand no later than Jan. 30.
The new guidelines from the Ministry of the Attorney General's office not only mandate when testimony will wrap up, but also set deadlines for closing submissions, which are due by the end of February, and for inquiry commissioner Normand Glaude's final report, which will now be in the hands of the province by July 31, 2009.
CABINET DIRECTED INQUIRY
"A commissioner is subject to the directions of lawful authorities. Cabinet has directed this inquiry in terms of the timing of the end of testimony, timing of submissions, and timing of the report," Glaude said Thursday morning. "I intend to do everything to meet the time-lines established."
Since testimony began in February 2006, the long-running probe into how institutions responded to allegations of historical abuse has heard from 138 witnesses, including victims, police officers, church officials, probation officers, and social workers.
There are, however, three institutions that have yet to be questioned: the local school boards, the Ontario Provincial Police, and the Attorney General's office itself.
And after nearly three years of poring over evidence with at-times maddening precision, the ministry's decision has some parties concerned those remaining institutions might not be subject to the same scrutiny.
"We can do it right, or we can do it the way suggested by the AG, as now reflected in the revised order-in-council. And they're mutually exclusive," said Dallas Lee, an attorney for The Victims Group.
Lee went so far as to say the ministry's decision would strike "a fatal blow" to the oft-maligned inquiry's credibility, and its yet-to-be-written report, in the eyes of the public.
Even before the first witness took the stand, there were cries that the fact Glaude had familial connections to the area - including two distant cousins who themselves were allegedly abuse victims - compromised his objectivity.
Those cries re-emerged after former Cornwall police officer Perry Dunlop, who brought to light a number of unreported sex abuse allegations, was jailed this March on contempt charges for refusing to testify.
"There have been naysayers (listening) to this inquiry since day one," said Lee. "And every one of them, I can guarantee you today, is saying 'Aha, I was right. The fix is in.'"
Ken Parker, vice-president for the Citizens for Community Renewal, called the decision a "betrayal" of former attorney general Michael Bryant's promise to have a complete, comprehensive inquiry that would leave "no stone unturned."
The public is especially interested in the OPP's four-year Project Truth investigation into allegations that a ring of pedophiles was operating unchecked in the area, said Parker. While Project Truth laid 115 charges against 15 men, only one person was convicted in Ontario as a result of the probe.
"They want to know where the truth lies and where the fiction begins," said Parker, adding his "greatest fear" was that the decision could curtail the amount of time available for cross-examination.
The inquiry's most recent schedule has blocked out five of the next six weeks for testimony, with more dates to be set after Dec. 4.
With some 20-30 witnesses still to be heard from, lead commission counsel Peter Engelmann admitted there would likely need to be some major changes to meet the province's "very ambitious time-lines."
The commission is considering reducing the number of days off, said Engelmann, as well as extending testimony into the evening and ensuring all the parties are more "efficient."
"It's going to be difficult. I'm not going to deny that," Engelmann said.
"We're going to get this done. We're going to have the witnesses who are most important testify. They will be subjected to rigorous questions, just as others have."
Chris Bentley, Ontario's current Attorney General, told the Canadian Press the government had originally set earlier deadlines, but they were pushed back by one month after consulting with Glaude.
"I think it's important the people of Ontario get the information and the advice as quickly as possible so that we can put the advice to good use," said Bentley from Toronto.
"We formalized the dates and then . . . extended the dates by a month to make sure we got the best possible advice."
Bentley pegged the inquiry's cost at somewhere around $37 million, adding "it's not done yet."
The new order-in-council also affects Phase 2 of the inquiry, effectively stopping the approval of new clients for counselling support and cancelling public forums that were scheduled after the end of January 2009, said policy director Colleen Parrish.
Phase 2 has a mandate to foster healing and reconciliation in the community.
"We do have projects and activities in the works (that are affected)," said Parrish. "In most cases, I think we can do about 90 per cent of what we were going to do."
Glaude said counselling for those already approved would still continue for 90 days past the release of his final report.
Copyright © 2008 The Cornwall Standard Freeholder