Less than a week into his new job, Giuliano Zaccardelli lured Jean Chretien into a confrontation. Then he presented the PM with an offer he could not refuse
Paul Palango, National Post
Published: Friday, November 14, 2008
Newly appointed RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli refused to elaborate on the "sophisticated criminal organizations" he referred to in his inaugural Sept. 7, 2000 press conference. But many reporters knew what he was referring to: Project Sidewinder, the joint RCMP- CSIS investigation that had begun eight years earlier following discoveries of irregularities at the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong.
As investigators followed the trail, they became concerned about the apparent links between the Chinese government, Chinese criminal triads, and leading Canadian business leaders and politicians. There were leads that investigators were eager to pursue back to Canada, but the controversial on-and-off investigation had been wound up without charges years earlier in puzzling circumstances. Yet it would not die.
For police and intelligence insiders, the inexplicable demise of Project Sidewinder was perceived to have been the latest and best example of politicians influencing police investigations. The leading Canadian businessman in China was Jean Chretien's son-in-law, Andre Desmarais, and the leading company operating there was his Power Corp.
Inside the RCMP, members had been grumbling that something needed to be done to save the force from political piranhas. To their delight, Zaccardelli seemed to be carving out an independent course for both himself and the force. His was the kind of leadership the RCMP craved, a commissioner who would finally stand up to the politicians and let the police do their job, without interference. The rule of law would trump the rule of politics. It looked as if Canada was finally headed on the right track.
The day Zaccardelli spoke, Chretien was in New York attending the two-day Millennium Summit of the United Nations, where he addressed a plenary session on the conflict in East Timor. "An incredibly diverse nation, we are deeply committed to freedom, tolerance, justice and equality. We know the sense of community that comes from sharing prosperity and opportunity," Chretien told his fellow world leaders. "Alleviating world poverty is our common cause. We must share the benefits of globalization. We must give it a human purpose and a human face."
When he got back to Ottawa, Chretien was first shocked and then furious about Zaccardelli's apparent ambush, a confidential source said. He could not fire Zaccardelli only a week into his job -- even after a public performance like the one Zaccardelli had just given.
Though politicians, critics and the Mounties themselves complained that the RCMP had become a politicized police force, no one has ever found the smoking gun. What happened that weekend in September, 2000, might well have been one. Confidential sources say Zaccardelli was summoned to an emergency tete-atete with Chretien. He showed up in full dress uniform.
Chretien let him cool his jets for two and a half hours in the foyer before having him ushered in. The commissioner was looking like a loose cannon, but Chretien had to be extremely careful about what he said and how he said it. The Desmarais connection was as touchy a subject as there could be. Chretien's predecessor, Brian Mulroney, was back working with the Desmarais family on Power Corp.'s international board of advisers. Chretien did not even risk raising the family name. He also knew that he could not threaten Zaccardelli or order him to do anything untoward because the commissioner might just turn around and use that against him. Delicacy was the watchword.
Sources familiar with what took place that day said that Zaccardelli told the prime minister that he had only been doing his job the way the law demanded and the public expected.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Act of 1984 lists specified "threats to the security of Canada," which includes "foreign-influenced activities within or relating to Canada that are detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person." RCMP investigators had reasonable suspicions of a possible criminal conspiracy and were thus duty-bound to revive the Sidewinder file and pursue the case.
Of course, Zaccardelli stated, a useful by-product was that such a public display of independence helped to raise the morale of the force. It showed the world that he was not in the government's pocket, like a few of his predecessors; that he was truly independent. Only in this way could his leadership be accepted by his fellow Mounties and ultimately be effective.
Chretien was too cagey not to see where all this was headed. He told Zaccardelli that it would be wrongheaded for him to pursue the investigation because it had already been settled a year earlier. A source said the conversation went something like this:
"There was nothing to it," the prime minister told the new commissioner. "It's no good for the image of the country if the police are seen to always be chasing the prime minister or prominent business leaders, like they did with Mulroney."
Chretien hammered out a deal with Zaccardelli. Chretien implied he did not care what the RCMP did--or how it did it -- as long as it respected his turf. "I don't want to know anything," he said, disingenuously. He really did want to know and had ways to find out.
Business links to Chretien in China were a matter of public record. He had worked closely with Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing in one of Li's companies. The Desmaraises were just about the only Canadian capitalists making a killing in China. It was clear to Chretien that the end result of the Project Sidewinder investigation -- should it continue -- would lead inevitably to an investigation of him, his extended family and their considerable corporate holdings.
Power Corp. also had a large stake in China where it was heavily invested in a multitude of projects. For Chretien, protecting his corporate interests and contacts was much more important than the public interest.
Chretien decided that if Zaccardelli and the Mounties backed off, he would stay out of Zaccardelli's business and let him run the force as he saw fit. Zaccardelli's gambit had been as cleverly designed as an undercover police operation. He had lured the prime minister into a confrontation and then presented him with an offer he could not refuse. It had worked perfectly. Both men had received what they wanted. The Sidewinder file evaporated into the mists, and was never again pursued, to the surprise, if not shock, of the rest of the RCMP.
"Zac made this big announcement about organized crime and all these threats and we were all revved up to get going, and then nothing ever happened. It just dropped off the radar, never to be seen or heard again," said former RCMP superintendent Garry Clement. Clement had been intimately involved in the Sidewinder investigation. "It was weird the way that whole thing happened."
Zaccardelli believed he now had a free hand to run the RCMP any way he pleased. In only his first week as commissioner, Zaccardelli had effectively created a sinecure for himself, unencumbered by oversight or political criticism. Feeling politically safe and protected, he soon began to reveal his true nature. And the dominoes that would lead to his downfall began to fall.
From Dispersing the Fog: Inside the Secret World of Ottawa and the RCMP by Paul Palango.
Copyright © 2008 by Paul Palango.
Published by arrangement with Key Porter Books.