The Day the Mounties Came To Call

Published in Pen Canada Annual Report 2008-2009

I am writing this at the dining table in my house where a Royal Canadian Mounted Police man sat amid a jungle of wires with my laptop computer pried open. He was one of ten RCMP who swarmed into my small home the cold winter morning of January 21, 2004.

The table faces the street. Each time he looked up he saw the reporters at the end of the snow-covered yard, stamping their feet to get warm amid their own jungle of cables, microphones, and cameras, some pointed right at him as he copied the contents of my computer.

Relief surged through me each time I glanced out. I am a journalist. My colleagues were out there. Whatever happened in here, people would find out. I turned on the radio and heard news of the search as it was underway.

PEN Canada had also gone to work, issuing a statement of condemnation that was distributed around the world. The raid was an outrageous act of intimidation against journalists and news organizations.

Upstairs, an officer rifled through my book shelves, shaking some open for bits of paper, checking files in a cabinet. I was not allowed to use the adjacent washroom unless an officer was placed in a "contiguous" position.

Yet another officer pored through old letters. And another rifled my tapes and computer discs, placing some in evidence bags. In the bedroom a lady officer went through my most personal stuff —clothes drawers, coat pockets, a jewelry box. She lifted and peered under the quilt where I had been sleeping peacefully just an hour earlier.

In the living room, Sgt. Tom McMillan asked me to take a seat. He was from the RCMP office of truth verification, known to most of us as lie detection. His tape recorder was on. I put mine on too.

The search would take many hours, he said, asking me to go to his office to discuss documents while the search was underway at the house and, I discovered later, at my office too. I did not want to leave my house swarming with police.

"There will be no broken plates," McMillan told me. "We're not into that at all."

I declined to go with him.

As the search neared an end, he told me the most intrusive part was over.

"We want to move on and put this to bed and let some people have some rest," he said.

The RCMP had had enough, he said, of investigating themselves.

It was suspected that someone had leaked a document to me for a story I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen about the case of Maher Arar, a victim of extraordinary rendition.

"Really, the bottom line on this is you're asking me to name a source for a story," I replied.

"Absolutely," said McMillan. "I'm not pussy footing around. I'm asking for the truth."

He was demanding I break the cardinal rule of journalism.

The threat was the Security of Information Act, the law under which the RCMP obtained the search warrants. It contained a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison for the journalist who receives leaked information.

The battle against that law and the search warrants took nearly three years and cost the Ottawa Citizen and parent company Canwest Global Communications Corp. hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The court ordered all the seized material returned to me. Justice Lynn Ratushny found the law was used as a tool of intimidation during a search for a journalist's source. She struck down the offending sections as violations of fundamental justice and our constitutional right to freedom of expression, including freedom of the media.

I had been holding my breath for nearly three years, my work as a journalist deformed by threat of criminal sanction. Although their actions had been judged unconstitutional and abusive, it was another year before the RCMP said I was no longer the subject of "an ongoing investigation."

It is difficult to describe the depths of pressure I experienced during and after this ordeal. But it has never been difficult to express my gratitude for the efforts of PEN whose members kept front and centre the fact that state intimidation of journalists has no place in our democratic country.

Standing on Guard in Canada for the Rights of Juliet O'Neill
Christopher Waddell in Pen Canada Annual Report 2008-2009