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How far will MPs go to torpedo a bill?

Wednesday, August 20, 2003 - Page A14

If Canadian Alliance MPs had met with the deputy U.S. drug czar to enlist his help in stopping the federal government from decriminalizing marijuana, Liberal MPs would have criticized them as sneaky, if not disloyal.

So, news that a group of Liberal MPs may have done just that ought to concern members of the Liberal caucus, now meeting in North Bay, Ont.

The backbenchers in question -- Roger Gallaway, Brenda Chamberlain, Dan McTeague and a few others -- are frequent and often bitter critics of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's government, an unofficial opposition that works from within. Last month they met with Barry Crane, deputy director for supply reduction at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

According to a memo written by a Canadian Foreign Affairs official who sat in on that meeting, the rebel MPs were looking for help in defeating the cannabis reform bill. Mr. McTeague denies this, and says the main goal of the meeting was simply to exchange views.

The U.S. administration has already made its views known. When the bill was introduced in May, John Walters, the White House director of drug-control policy, quickly condemned Ottawa's plans to replace the current stiff penalties for Canadians caught possessing small amounts of marijuana with fines similar to those handed out for speeding. He called the proposed legislation a threat to Americans, and said his government would take stringent steps to keep Canadian cannabis from flowing south. The cost to Canada could be high, he warned, in dramatically slower traffic at the borders and lost trade for Canadian companies.

His deputy, Dr. Crane, came to Ottawa last month to discuss the contentious issue with Canadian officials. During his visit, he also met with the group of Liberal MPs on Parliament Hill. Two officials from Foreign Affairs attended.

Mr. McTeague asked one official to leave, but according to the memo seemed unaware that a second official remained in the room. That official took detailed minutes of the encounter, noting that at least one of the MPs suggested that to defeat the bill, senior members of the U.S. administration needed to emphasize the damage it would do to cross-border trade.

The bureaucrat, whose name has not been made public, was apparently so troubled by the MPs' behaviour that he or she passed the minutes of the meeting to senior officials in the department. A source in government showed the memo to reporter Brian Laghi of The Globe's Ottawa bureau.

Maybe the meeting was an innocent one, as the MPs contend. Maybe, as they say, any suggestions about how to help defeat the bill were made in asides, not directly to Dr. Crane. But given their vocal opposition to this bill and many other government policies, it is more likely the backbenchers were looking for help in the fight to keep a much tougher drug law in place.

Their conduct was highly inappropriate. True, they weren't telling Dr. Crane anything he didn't already know, but MPs shouldn't be turning to the United States for extraterritorial help in thwarting the Canadian government. It is part of a pattern of increasingly reckless behaviour on the part of the rebels, who are chafing under Mr. Chrétien's rule.

The outgoing Prime Minister probably can't bring them into line, but the censure of their fellow MPs may have some influence. They look like sneaks, and deserve to be criticized.

Chrétien blasts his MPs for meddling with pot bill

With reports from Jane Taber and Brian Laghi
Thursday, August 21, 2003 - Page A4

NORTH BAY, ONT. -- Prime Minister Jean Chrétien took a whack at a group of his own MPs yesterday, accusing them of asking the United States to "intervene" to block their own government's plans to decriminalize marijuana.

The MPs met with a senior U.S. drug policy official in July, and a Canadian Foreign Affairs official present reported they suggested the United States press its objection to the marijuana policy, tying it to trade and border disputes.

Many of the MPs have insisted that their actions were innocent and wrongly portrayed by the civil servant who took notes, and that the memo may be an effort to smear them. Some of the MPs at the meeting have been regular critics of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Chrétien suggested yesterday that the MPs invited the United States to intrude in Canadian policy. "I'm very surprised that they would use that route. We in Canada, we're passing laws in Canada," he said at a press conference in North Bay, where Liberal MPs and senators are meeting.

"It's the responsibility of members to discuss and debate. And in this case, we had a report from the Senate committee, a House of Commons committee, it's been debated for years, and we made a proposition on legislation."

The MPs defended themselves by saying the meeting was an effort to hear the views of the U.S. government and little more.

Earlier this week, MP Brenda Chamberlain acknowledged in an interview that she and others had asked the U.S. official, deputy drug czar Barry Crane, to tell the PM and federal bureaucrats about his concern that there could be difficulties at the Canada-U.S. border if the law passed. When Dr. Crane told the MPs that he had already done so, Ms. Chamberlain said MPs told him to repeat it, to underscore the concerns.

She also said the MPs were not attempting to get Dr. Crane to lean on the Prime Minister and added that the meeting was not held at the American Embassy, as originally reported, but at Parliament Hill's West Block. She also said it was not a secret gathering.

The incident sparked a heated argument among MPs at a closed-door meeting of the Liberals' Ontario caucus yesterday, sources in the caucus said.

Toronto MP Charles Caccia blasted the group -- including MPs Dan McTeague, Roger Gallaway and Judi Longfield -- suggesting they should leave the party.

But some of the MPs, including Mr. McTeague and Ms. Longfield, took to the microphone to defend their attendance at the meeting.

The bureaucrat, whose memo The Globe and Mail was allowed to see and take notes from, said in the document that the MPs were "highly critical" of the reform bill, and that the "apparent aim of the members" was to solicit the help of U.S. officials to defeat it.

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