Former Attorney General Geoff Plant insisted Monday a “statement of regret” was the best he could offer Sons of Freedom Doukhobors taken from their homes in the 1950s and placed in a New Denver residential school.
During the final day of testimony before the BC Human Rights Tribunal in Vancouver, Plant was asked why he didn’t go a step further in the legislature in 2004 and apologize for the government’s actions.
He replied that a combination of legal liability and government’s view that it was not “appropriate” prevented him.
“There are at least a couple of reasons why those words [apology or sorry] were not used,” Plant testified.
“The first is that it was clear on the advice I had received that an apology carried with it the risk of legal liability and that was not a position government nor I was prepared [to accept].
“We did not want this to become a legal statement of wrongdoing in legal proceedings that were underway.”
He noted the statement of regret was delivered a few years before the introduction of legislation that allows government to offer apologies without admitting fault.
Asked by complainant Walter Swetlishoff whether an apology would have been given had the statute been in effect at the time, Plant didn’t answer directly but said legal liability wasn’t the only consideration.
Plant said he concluded that while the removal of the children from their families was “utterly regrettable,” it was “not appropriate now to apologize for something government had done 50 years ago.”
Asked which he considered more powerful — an apology or statement of regret — he replied that it’s a matter for debate, but given sincere intentions, the latter could be “very powerful.”
“Government is sorry for what happened, but that’s not quite the same as a formal legal apology. That distinction was important then and it is important now.”
Asked by government lawyer Rob Horricks about apologies given to victims of abuse at institutions such as Woodland and Jericho schools, Plant said he believed each situation was best dealt with individually, based on unique circumstances.
“The cases are different. If you try to establish some blanket, inflexible policy you run the risk of being insensitive.”
The tribunal has been hearing a complaint brought by a group known as the New Denver Survivors that the government discriminated against them in its response to a 1999 ombudsman’s report that suggested they were owed an apology and compensation for what they endured.
Plant said the statement of regret he delivered in the legislature received a “mixed” reaction, both from the New Denver survivors’ group and general public.
“I remember hearing from people who were disappointed or angry government did not give the apology they thought was required given the ombudsman’s report,” he said. “I also heard from people who thought we had done the right thing, and even gone too far.”
Plant also said soon after, he ordered work on a memorial at New Denver to stop because there were mixed feelings about the project. It got as far as the erection of an unusual picnic table, but was never completed or dedicated.
He denied ever suggesting it was okay for the BC government to abuse children and violate their human rights, or that he viewed Doukhobor history as a “disgrace to the nation,” or that he used racial profiling to avoid implementing the ombudsman’s recommendations.
Plant was the final witness in the hearing, which began last month in Nelson before shifting to Vancouver for the government’s side.
‘MISTRUST COLOURED PERCEPTIONS’
During closing statements, Horricks argued Swetlishoff failed to produce evidence to support his allegations, but explained the government nevertheless called those most involved with the file to testify so the tribunal and others vested in the complaint could “better understand their actions and motivations.”
Horricks said it was apparent from the evidence many New Denver survivors remain suspicious of the government’s motives.
“That mistrust, whether warranted or not, clearly coloured their perception of what government was trying to do,” Horricks said. “I submit much of the complaint be considered under that light.”
He added a letter from the survivors’ group suggesting Plant felt it was okay for the government to abuse children and violate their human rights was “patently untrue.”
“Those statements are so far off the mark that it’s hard to accept the comment as anything other than a deliberate attempt to whip up anti-government sentiment among the former New Denver residents,” he said.
Horricks said a clear indication of good faith was that the government negotiated with the survivors despite reservations about the ombudsman’s report — which was not legally binding.
“If government didn’t accept the recommendations, what was the incentive to act?”
He pointed to the testimony of retired bureaucrat Linda Neville: “Her answer was even if there wasn’t a legal issue, there was a moral issue.”
Horricks said the complaint asks the tribunal to do what the ombudsman could not, and turn the recommendations into a judicial order.
If the tribunal chair finds the government breached the human rights code, it can award compensation for damage to dignity or self-respect.
It’s unclear how long a ruling will take.