Commissions of Inquiry by Tim Ball

I used to think, like most people, that Commissions of Inquiry are a great idea. Whenever there are serious and troublesome conflicts people know the only hope of getting to the truth is to get the politics out of the way. They believe this is the only way that fair, reasonable, resolutions can occur.

As I said, I used to think that, until appointment to my first Commission of Inquiry. It involved a dispute over water, one of the most contentious issues in any society. I was appointed because I learned very early in studying climate that drought was the single most problematic issue for flora and fauna, including humans. As a result, I studied drought on the Prairies but also around the world and expanded that to all aspects of water. I ended up teaching courses in Water Resources for 25 years and serving on numerous committees and commissions. This included chairing a Management Advisory Board for the Assiniboine River, which produced management policies for the entire drainage basin.

The Provincial Minister of Natural Resources decided that it was easier and wiser to heed calls for a commission of inquiry, hence my appointment. My education about Commissions began after the first meeting. The Chairman provided us with the Terms of Reference for the Inquiry drawn up by the Minister and Deputy Minister. I knew a great deal about the conflict and the geography and history of the area so I realized the Terms restricted any inquiry to one conclusion, the one the Minister sought.

I then realized the political values of appointing a commission.

  • It made the political Minister, appear apolitical and fair-minded on the issue.
  • It gave the Minister political space to defer any questions until the completion of the Commission Report.
  • Often, by the time the Inquiry is complete the politician has retired or moved to another portfolio.
  • Often the problem resolves itself because enough time passes for completion of natural cycles. For example, periods of rain replace the drought that aggravated an issue.
  • Other, larger issues supersede and occupy the public and media attention.
  • The Inquiry effectively silenced people affected by the problem, who can then only protest against any delay.
  • The Minister can blame the Commission and avoid action by saying she cannot interfere.

In the case of the limited terms of reference, I told the Commission Chair that we must demand effectively carte blanche access to all information to complete a proper Inquiry. I told him to tell the Minister that unless such openness occurred I would be obliged to tell the media that the Minister was trying to predetermine the outcome of the Inquiry.

They decided that was a greater political problem than anything we might determine. The first thing the data confirmed was that there were three previous commissions over a 100-year period. It included a letter sent to Ottawa in the 1870s from an engineer who was also the local Federal Indian Agent. He identified all the problems we confronted and provided a list of appropriate solutions. None of them, or those of the subsequent Inquiries, were implemented. I remained on the Commission, but only because the political power switched to the opposition who demanded the original Inquiry.

In the years after, I served on many Commissions but only with the condition we could agree on the Terms of Reference. The experience allowed me to study other Commissions of Inquiry and conclude that they, beyond failing to deal with the original problems, become the source of most conspiracy theories.

For example, arguably the biggest conspiracy theory, in this age of Internet-driven conspiracies, is the President Kennedy assassination. I watched an interview with Chief Justice Warren, Chair of the appointed Commission of Inquiry. The interviewer asked why they didn’t pursue the Jack Ruby Mafia connection in Dallas. Warren replied, “It wasn’t in my terms of reference.” I knew what he was saying, but most people didn’t. Likely, that omission, among others fueled the conspiracy.

Commissions of Inquiry are useful tools of independent, quasi-judicial, inquiry. They require a trigger mechanism beyond political pressure or political escapism and, at most, extremely limited Terms of Reference. Time limits on the Inquiry are essential, including a waiver of the need to wait for the Final Report. Of the dozens of Inquiries of my experience, all had decisions and actions that dealt with pressing issues that didn’t require the full report for action. People need to get on with their lives. That is the original purpose of inquiries, but, as usual, politicians pervert them for their political agendas. It is time to let Inquiries do what people think they are supposed to do – get rid of the politics.