Correctional Service Canada (CSC) emails show employees worried “the circus would begin” if word got out to families and others before notorious serial killer Paul Bernardo’s prison transfer was complete.
Global News received a collection of internal CSC emails through an access-to-information request, detailing internal conversations about moving Bernardo from a maximum-security penitentiary to a medium-security facility and plans for how and when to notify the victims’ families.
In an April 6 email exchange between two CSC officials, whose names are both redacted, they talk about Bernardo being told of his upcoming transfer. The first official then asks when the victims’ families get notified, and if it must happen a certain number of days prior to the transfer.
The second official replies that they only need to give advance notice for transfers to minimum-security prisons, and that Bernardo’s victims’ families will be notified once the transfer is complete.
“Oh good, I was worried the circus would begin prior to the transfer,” the first official replied.
“Nope, he’ll be assigned to someone else by the time it hits the fan,” the second official wrote.
In preparing for the transfer, the emails showed CSC staff discussed avoiding sensitive dates. This included the birth and death dates of Kristen French (May 10 and April 19) and Leslie Mahaffy (July 5 and June 15).
An email exchange on April 11 that discussed the upcoming transfer noted, “This will likely have a strong negative victim and media reaction.”
The next day, April 12, the May 29 prison transfer date was confirmed, according to a CSC email.
Officials ultimately determined that the transfer would be done by vehicle, making the four-and-a-half-hour drive between the Millhaven penitentiary in Ontario and La Macaza Institution in Quebec, with no planned stops, and Bernardo being the lone prisoner on board.
The emails show there was discussion leading up to Bernardo’s transfer around “the optics of notifying victims prior to the transfer occurring.”
On May 26, one regional CSC administrator working in communications and executive services emailed the CSC director of citizen engagement with concerns.
The regional administrator wrote that she was concerned about giving any advance notification in Bernardo’s case given that the agency had received “unfounded” but “defendable” informal complaints in the past from victims who were notified after transfers, in keeping with the agency’s policies.
That policy says it is not mandatory that victims are given advance notice of a transfer, but a discretionary “heads-up” call can be made in high-profile or sensitive scenarios.
“I understand the compassion and decision making of this particular case, however I want to be able to position the VSU (Victims Services Unit) to defend potential questions arising from other victims,” the regional administrator wrote.
The administrator and director then discussed arranging a phone call.
Previous emails obtained by Global News under access-to-information laws show corrections officials describing the need to keep news of the transfer “low profile.”
How did Bernardo’s transfer day unfold?
Commissioner Anne Kelly of the CSC released the results of a review into his transfer on Thursday, which found the decision was “sound” despite intense public and political outcry questioning the move of the killer from maximum to medium-security prison.
Bernardo, 58, has been serving a life sentence for the kidnappings, tortures and murders of teenagers Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy in the early 1990s. He and his then-wife Karla Homolka also killed her younger sister, Tammy Homolka.
According to the CSC review, Bernardo had requested his transfer and after integrating with other inmates at the Millhaven Institution, his request was approved and details began being arranged for his move to La Macaza in Quebec.
The warden of Millhaven Institution said the victims services unit had been informed of the proposed transfer on Jan. 6, 2023.
Bernardo was moved on May 29, and news broke of the transfer on June 2.
On the morning of the transfer, an email was sent at 8:44 a.m. eastern confirming that Bernardo had officially left Millhaven.
According to the French and Mahaffy families’ lawyer, Tim Danson, he received a “non-descript voicemail” from CSC at 9:06 a.m. He said it was just a message that there was important information for him, and he did not hear the message until later that afternoon, following a second voicemail at 1:48 p.m.
At 9:13 a.m., the regional administrator and director who had discussed concerns about early notification of victims have an email exchange in the documents obtained by Global News about not being able to get a hold of an individual described as “him” and waiting a few minutes to see if he calls back.
This appears to be in reference to Danson, but the lawyer is not mentioned by name.
Five minutes later the decision is made to reach out to make the remaining calls to victims’ families if “he” doesn’t call back by 9:30 a.m.
A redacted CSC employee later emails the director and the manager of victim services with the agency to let them know that the “offender has arrived” at 1:45 p.m., indicating Bernardo had reached La Macaza.
At 3:28 p.m., an email was sent informing the communications team that victim notification was complete.
The script provided to the communications team for the “heads up” call was redacted in the ATIP, but according the to transfer review, staff were instructed to say Bernardo was being transferred out of province, but no other details could be shared as per policy.
The review adds that “if pressed,” it could be shared Bernardo would be going to a medium-security institution with the same double-sided perimeter fence.
A second notification of transfer call was conducted that named La Macaza Institution.
The handling of the case had piled political pressure on Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, both facing questions about why they say they were not informed until the day after and the day of the transfer, respectively, despite their staff being briefed months earlier.
On behalf of the French and Mahaffy families, Danson called on the government to change the laws he called “shocking” and “incomprehensible” for how to deal with Canada’s most dangerous offenders.
Specifically, Danson argued that the requirement that a penitentiary be “least restrictive” for an offender is misplaced. He says this cannot be a one-size-fits-all criterion.
Bernardo has been diagnosed as having psychopathic tendencies throughout his time in the legal system, and his sentencing judge said the likelihood of rehabilitation was “remote in the extreme.”
- ‘Never submit to evil,’ Zelenskyy urges in speech as Trudeau vows $650M more
- New COVID shot provides ‘boost in protection’ against new variants: doctors
- Canada shared Nijjar killing allegations with India ‘weeks ago,’ Trudeau says
- NDP promises to axe proposed plan to quit CPP if it wins 2027 Alberta election
Danson writes that a hallmark of psychopathy is being manipulative and different criteria should be applied in this case.
The prison transfer was approved on the basis that Bernardo had successfully integrated into the broader prison population.
That is rationale that Danson called “weak,” stating Bernardo is a coward who only attacked “innocent, defenseless” teenage girls and young women, not prison guards.
Danson also takes issues with the argument Bernardo’s right to privacy trumps the victims’ families in this case, and the government needs to re-evaluate transparency in the corrections and parole system.
Just after the release of the review, Mendicino issued a ministerial directive instructing CSC to directly notify his office in the event of future high-profile prisoner transfers.
— with files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly.