NEWMARKET, Ont. - A shroud of secrecy thrown over part of an extraordinary case involving allegations of harassment within the RCMP should be lifted as much as possible, an Ontario justice heard Friday.
The court-imposed secrecy, which ostensibly involves the identity of a confidential informant but may also be linked to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's family life, is so extreme that even the reasons for the order are unknown.
"This is an extraordinary situation," media lawyer Brian MacLeod Rogers told Superior Court Justice Mary Vallee. "I'm in the dark about what's been going on."
Rogers, who represents several media outlets, said reporters have been unable to raise concerns since last December, when they were abruptly excluded from the courtroom in a civil case involving RCMP Sgt. Peter Merrifield.
The officer alleges senior officers ruined his career after he launched an unsuccessful bid to run for the federal Conservatives in 2005.
Merrifield had called "Witness X" to testify in early December but the proceedings went in-camera. Vallee ordered material related to the hearing sealed, including a copy of her sealing order itself.
On Friday, the National Post, citing sources, reported the material at issue includes four letters sent by private investigator Derrick Snowdy to assistant RCMP commissioner Stephen White.
The Post said the letters are believed to contain allegations the RCMP leaked private information about Harper's family.
The federal government maintains that Section 37 of the Canada Evidence Act allows for confidentiality where openness would encroach upon the public interest.
Rogers — who represents Postmedia News, CBC, Maclean's and the Toronto Star — said he saw no issue with measures to protect the identity of a confidential informant.
However, he argued, it's not good enough for the government to make general claims about the risk to the public interest by releasing information in a case involving allegations of wrongdoing by the country's national police force.
"I don't see a specified public interest," he said.
Merrifield's lawyer Laura Young said her client wants his case to be heard and "understood publicly."
Federal lawyer Barney Brucker said he was unable to say much given the circumstances, although he agreed the proceeding should be open as much as possible.
"I'm in somewhat of a difficult situation as well," he said. "I can't say very much about the specific public interest."
If some material is to be released, he told Vallee, she should allow the parties involved to see what it would be so they could make submissions.
Asked whether the sealing order related to the prime minister's family, Brucker said only he "wouldn't think so."
"We're protecting the public interest," he said outside court. "I can't say anything further."
Vallee reserved her decision.