Sixth Annual Report by the Witness Protection Program Advisory Committee
In March of 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Canadian provinces and territories declared states of emergency, and entered into lockdowns. As a result, the federal Witness Protection Program Advisory Committee met through teleconference and video conference; and this report is a summary of those meetings. During the 2020-21 reporting period, the Program experienced a variety of added challenges; however, it also found opportunities to address areas for improvement and adapt where necessary.
This is the sixth annual report from the federal Witness Protection Program Advisory Committee (hereinafter referred to as "the Committee" or WPPAC), presented, per its terms of reference, to the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
Due to COVID-19, the Committee met twice virtually to follow Public Health recommendations. These meetings were held in November 2020 by teleconference and in May 2021 by video conference. As a result, this report contains a summary of the meetings rather than formal recommendations as previous reports from the WPPAC.
Assistant Commissioner (Ret'd) Michel Séguin, RCMP, submitted his letter of resignation at the end of his membership term. The Committee would like to thank him for his valuable experience and participation throughout his term on the WPPAC.
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic
The Committee notes that despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, the Witness Protection Program (WPP) continued to deliver quality services to Protectees. The WPP quickly adapted its operations with the initial goal of ensuring all Protectees were financially stable during this uncertain period. As such, the Program decided to extend financial support through September 2020 to ensure Protectees were supported during the instability brought by lockdowns. Throughout the pandemic, the WPP has faced challenges in moving witnesses from one province to another due to various provincial and federal public health orders and travel restrictions. These restrictions have also presented significant challenges in the WPP's ability to provide in-person family visits.
The Program has not seen any noticeable changes in the risk to Protectees other than common pandemic-related concerns such as isolation, mental health, and the lack of access to treatment and other services. The Committee congratulated the Program in their ability to be resilient in the current environment and praised their efforts on the mental health front, for both Protectees and employees. The Committee encouraged the Program to continue with their efforts. As the restrictions have begun to ease across the country, operations have slowly been able to return to standard practices.
Employee well-being throughout the pandemic was also a priority for Program Management. In following public health guidelines, work in the office and in-person meetings were only approved when absolutely necessary. Employees worked remotely where possible, but given that the Program's classified information is stored on secure systems, attendance was required in the office to conduct core program duties. Health and Safety limits on occupancy did present a challenge, particularly for the Disclosure Unit, to meet the demands of the courts while ensuring employees were still following safety protocols.
Disclosure continues to represent one of the most demanding administrative challenges for the Program as the requests from Defence counsel to access sensitive WPP information has increased significantly since the Safer Witness Act (2014) was introduced. The WPP continues to assert its Third Party Status in relation to increased disclosure requests in various jurisdictions. The Program documents and provides evidence to the courts in relation to the significant efforts that have been made to ensure that the WPP is administered separately and independently from the investigative arm of the RCMP.
The Program continues to work to remain independent from investigators to maintain Third Party Status. One of the means by which the Program is accomplishing this is by providing education and conducting outreach to investigators on how to handle cases with WPP involvement while protecting the identity of both witnesses and employees. The Program is exploring options to educate Provincial and Federal Crown prosecutors to better understand WPP issues. As medium- and long-term options, legislative amendments were recommended to clearly define legislative requirements within the Witness Protection Program Act. The WPP is exploring means to assist the courts in the management of sensitive WPP information should the Act be re-opened in the future. The Program and RCMP Legal Services plan to create a desk book that could be used as a national template for Department of Justice Counsel representing the Program.
The Committee recognized the Program's dedication to its Research Strategy, noting that it continued to advance even with the current circumstances of COVID-19.
The Committee is impressed with how the Program has been able to overcome the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure Protectees remained safe and stable during this difficult period. The Program was able to explore alternate options, where possible, to assist Protectees in re-establishing into society and becoming self-sufficient. Employees were able to work in a safe environment and the Program did not experience any significant negative impacts to Protectees or its employees.
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