Mr. Speaker, I move, seconded by my colleague from Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, that the Fourth report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, presented on Monday, November 5, be concurred in.
It will be readily understood not only that the debate that begins today goes back a long way for a very honourable family, a family who have spent their lives in the Gaspé region, the Coffin family, but also that it is a debate that reminds us how fallible and implacable our human justice system is.
With the execution of Wilbert Coffin in February 1956, a terrible injustice was committed. That injustice has had to be worn as a stigma by an entire group. As long as it has not been repaired, and the memory of Wilbert Coffin has not been restored, a family will not be able to find the peace to which it is entitled. In my opinion, we must all feel a duty to respond.
The Coffin case reminds us clearly of a way of doing things that, we must hope, will never return.
The manner in which he was detained and evidence was admitted, and the very unfairness of the trial, remind us clearly of how much things have changed and how sad it is that in 1953, 1954, 1955 and 1956 there were people who were deaf to the appeal voiced by many others, including the former journalist and senator Jacques Hébert.
I want to take this opportunity—and I am sure that my colleagues will join me—to thank the member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine. He has done his job as a member. He is the kind of member we like to see, someone who stays close to the people, someone who does not shirk his responsibilities.
I repeat: in the Coffin case, there is no statute of limitations, there is no chance that it will be forgotten and there is no possibility that time will erase the injustices.
What is this about? Three Americans who loved to hunt traveled to the Gaspé. The Gaspé played host to an impressive number of tourists at the time. Obviously, we hope that the Gaspé will continue to host large numbers of tourists, because it is one of the most beautiful places in Quebec, with all that nature has to offer, and all of the hospitality that the people who live there show to tourists.
Wilbert Coffin, a mining prospector, was the guide for a party of people who wanted to go on a hunting trip that was to last about ten days. These Americans had come here, to the Gaspé, to go on a hunting trip and to have a holiday that, we might think, they hoped would provide them with tranquility and relaxation. Members must remember that at the time, Americans were regular visitors to the Gaspé and tourism was a major industry in that region.
These hunters, namely an American by the name of Lindsay, his son Richard and a family friend, set up camp and prepared for their hunting expedition. A few days later, they were found dead. This resulted in Wilbert Coffin's arrest in August 1953.
That is when parliamentarians should step in.
That is when the mechanisms provided for in the Criminal Code should be applied to ensure that justice is done. Under section 696, one such mechanism may be set into motion when there are reasonable grounds to believe that a miscarriage of justice has occurred, that the process did not take its due course. There is a long list of irregularities, starting with the conditions of detention, with Wilbert Coffin being detained for dozens of days in conditions that were just plain horrible, where he was subjected to physical abuse and intimidation, was kicked around and assaulted.
Of course, the worst irregularity, which in and of itself should justify reconsidering the whole Coffin affair, was the ties between the prosecutor in charge of Mr. Coffin's case and Maurice Duplessis' government. We recall and point out that Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis, the member for Trois-Rivières, was also the attorney general. As we know, in his capacity as attorney general, Maurice Duplessis directed not only that Coffin be found guilty, but also that he be executed because they did not want the tourism industry in the region of Quebec where this affair took place, namely the Gaspé, to be adversely affected.
Not only did Wilbert Coffin's last two counsels—he changed counsel along the way—did not summon any witnesses, but they did not even allow Wilbert Coffin to take the stand to explain his version of the facts. They arranged the entire defence submissions without Wilbert Coffin having a chance to speak.
Such unfair rules, which constitute a denial of the most fundamental principles of natural justice, would immediately result in a stay of proceedings and a new trial, if this happened under today's rules.
Not only was Wilfert Coffin denied a fair trial and the opportunity to take the stand, not only was the crown prosecutor in connivance with Premier Duplessis, but Coffin was not even allowed to give what is now known as proof of his good repute.
Obviously the Coffin family, which had lived in the Gaspé for many years, could have had friends and acquaintances testify for Wilbert Coffin, a mining prospector who had spent his life in the Carleton area of the Gaspé. These witnesses could have testified about how this man was such a law-abiding citizen. No one is saying he did not have any faults—everyone has faults—or that he was not one to party a little bit sometimes, but to make a criminal out of him for it is totally unacceptable. Some of the evidence was withheld and some investigative tools were not used.
The Coffin case is a stigma, a black mark on the administration of justice in Quebec. I can completely understand that Wilbert Coffin's sister, Mary Coffin, and his nieces and nephews and his son, Jimmy, will never rest or be at peace until the memory of Wilbert Coffin has been restored.
On October 25, when I tabled the motion in the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, I asked this section of the Department of Justice, which is independent from the minister—I know—and handles judicial review, to use the new evidence, under section 696 of the Criminal Code. I know that my colleague, the hon. member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, is going to talk about new facts that have come to light, so that we can engage the process, ask for a new trial, ask the Court of Appeal to intervene and restore the memory of Wilbert Coffin.
That is what this House is entitled to ask the Minister of Justice to do.
The Coffin family is entitled to ask Parliament for this restoration. I believe this has gone on for far too long. As long as justice has not been served, as long as we have not exposed the despicable way things were handled, when the attorney general of Quebec interfered in the administration of justice, we cannot be proud of ourselves. We expect reparation as soon as possible.