MONTREAL — There was already sufficient controversy in Quebec around a decision earlier this week not to lay criminal charges against a police officer who lost control of his speeding cruiser and crashed into another car, killing a 5-year-old boy.
But revelations Friday that the provincial police officer, who was travelling at 122-kilometres-an hour in a 50-kilometre-an-hour zone, was tailing the former head of the Quebec Liberal party as part of a corruption investigation have pushed the indignation to a whole new level.
In Toronto for a joint Ontario-Quebec cabinet meeting, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard stressed the fact that his political party was under investigation at the time of the fatal crash, as reported by Montreal's La Presse, had no impact on the decision not to lay charges against the police officer.
“A child died here. This is the main thing and the first thing we have to say. It's the most horrible thing that can happen to a family,” he said.
“The second thing is that our chief prosecutor is a totally independent institution that should always remain independent of any pressure from the media or from politicians. This institution is going to take the best decision in the interest of justice.”
The opposition Parti Québécois wants the government to order an external review of the evidence supporting the decision not to lay charges in the fatal crash given the political flavour of the new information that has come to light.
A representative of Quebec's director of public prosecutions is expected to provide further information about the matter on Friday afternoon.
The newspaper article is explosive in a province that is just starting to recover from a two-year-long public inquiry into corruption. The article is based on a police report provided to Quebec's director of public prosecutions, which made the ultimate decision not to charge the officer for the crash that occurred Feb. 13, 2014.
Four vehicles operated by Quebec's famed anti-corruption force were in pursuit of a grey 2012 Mercedes in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil, La Presse reported. Police feared their target vehicle was getting away from them in heavy morning traffic.
Around the same time, 8 a.m., Mike Belance was driving his children to school. His 5-year-old son Nicolas was strapped into a car seat in the rear, driver's side of the vehicle. Belance was making a left-hand turn when the police vehicle slammed on its brakes, reducing the speed of the unmarked cruiser at the time of impact to 90 kilometres an hour, according to the coroner's report.
Young Nicolas was transported to hospital, unconscious and bleeding from the ears and nose with no signs of brain activity. He was removed from life support a few days later, on Feb. 17.
The tragic incident surfaced this week after the province's public prosecution service announced it would not be laying criminal charges against the officer, information that was relayed to the family and later to the general public without any additional explanation.
That was trouble enough for Premier Philippe Couillard's Liberal government. After the news broke, there were promises to meet again with the boy's family to explain the reasons behind the decision as well as work on a new policy to publicly explain decisions concerning investigations stemming from deaths or injuries involving the police.
In a statement Friday afternoon, the prosecution agency said there was no political or police pressure leading them to the decision that charges should not be laid against the police officer who caused the deadly crash.
The La Presse article, citing the confidential police report from March 1, 2014, said that the surveillance operation was related to a criminal probe into corruption, breach of trust and illegal political donations involving elected officials, influential private business leaders and top provincial bureaucrats. The probe reportedly began in August 2013 and involved more than 70 witnesses.
The target of the surveillance operation was reportedly Robert Parent, who was director general of the Quebec Liberals from 2003 to 2008. Police believed he was going to meet with other suspects.
Contacted by La Presse Thursday night, Parent admitted to having been questioned three times by investigators to answer administrative and technical questions about the inner workings of the party.
But the police report explained that he had eventually become a reluctant witness before he stopped co-operating altogether with investigators in February 2014. Their surveillance operation followed him throughout Montreal and, on one occasion, captured Parent meeting an unnamed top bureaucrat in a restaurant.
Agnes Maltais, a senior member of the opposition Parti Québécois, said that the police decision to place witnesses under surveillance suggests that former top Liberals have stopped co-operating in the corruption probe.
“To put someone under surveillance, the investigations have to be very important and involve serious crimes,” she told reporters in Quebec City Friday. “I don't know if (Philippe Couillard) was aware of this, but I know one thing: there are leaders of the Liberal party that were aware and it is him, the leader of that party, that has to take responsibility . . . and ensure that they collaborate. There was a surveillance operation because there was no collaboration into serious crimes. It's terrible.”