Corrections chief briefed Mendicino's chief of staff weeks before Bernardo's prison transfer

Paul Bernardo, shown in a courtroom sketch while up for a parole hearing in 2021.  (Pam Davies - image credit)
Paul Bernardo, shown in a courtroom sketch while up for a parole hearing in 2021. (Pam Davies - image credit)

Then-public safety minister Marco Mendicino's chief of staff was briefed by the head of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) about Paul Bernardo's upcoming prison transfer almost two weeks before it happened — but the minister wasn't told about it until after Bernardo had been moved, says an internal government email.

The Privy Council Office (PCO) email, obtained by CBC News, also shows Corrections Canada was in contact with the minister's office about Bernardo's transfer from maximum to medium security a total of seven times between February and May 2023, before Mendicino was briefed.

Those contacts included the minister's communications staff being told about a possible change to the infamous serial killer and rapist's security level three months before it happened.

Tim Danson, the lawyer representing the families of two of Bernardo's victims, said it's "very disturbing" to learn that there was so much communication about the transfer that didn't reach the minister.

"It's quite incomprehensible," said Danson.

"The fact there has been so much communication says to me that everybody was well aware that this would be entirely unacceptable to Canadians, and so ... they proceeded in a way that would make the transfer a fait accompli."

Bernardo was convicted of first-degree murder in 1995 for killing teenagers Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy. He was also convicted of manslaughter for his role in the death of 15-year-old Tammy Homolka. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years and has been designated a dangerous offender.

Handout/The Canadian Press
Handout/The Canadian Press

The victims' families are outraged by the fact that they were only told that Bernardo was moving from a maximum to a medium security prison on May 29, 2023 — the day it happened.

CBC News reported exclusively in June that staff in Mendicino's office knew for more than three months that Bernardo could be transferred — but staff said they didn't tell the minister until the day after the transfer happened. The story set off a political firestorm and calls for Mendicino to resign.

Before being shuffled out of cabinet, Mendicino maintained he wasn't told about Bernardo's prison transfer in advance and said he should have been "briefed immediately."

Mendicino also issued a directive ordering that the minister be notified personally of such transfers in future, and that victims be told earlier. He never said who had failed to brief him.

CBC News has obtained hundreds of pages of internal emails from the Privy Council Office (PCO) about Bernardo's transfer through an access-to-information request. The emails contain a detailed "sequence of events" written by Corrections Canada and PCO.

Mendicino said on June 5 that the decision to transfer Bernardo was "shocking." Janice Charette, the clerk of the Privy Council at the time, asked her staff the next day to look into why Mendicino wasn't made aware of the transfer earlier and whether the commissioner of Corrections Canada did know about it.

"HI - From the Clerk this morning re CSC Bernardo — Can you follow up with the department?" reads an internal email between two Privy Council Office employees on June 6. "What's the process for sign off on this? How was Minister not aware? Was commissioner aware?"

A week later, a federal employee tasked with seeking information for the clerk of the Privy Council wrote to Corrections Canada asking for a chronology of events "ASAP."

"We are urgently seeking a detailed chronology of events, including timing on decision points, as well as notification of various parties (victims, [minister's office], PCO comms, etc)," wrote the Privy Council Office's Julie Davis to a Corrections Canada employee on June 14.

A summarized timeline and a more detailed document called "Sequence of Events" — listing everything PCO's communication team and Corrections Canada had uncovered — was subsequently shared with Davis. An email said CSC validated dates with the commissioner of Corrections Canada.

The sequence of events document said the minister's office was first given a heads-up about Bernardo's possible move on February 27 during a meeting.

WATCH: 'There was back and forth in the lead-up to the decision': Mendicino on Bernardo transfer

The "[communications] and issues" staff members at the minister's office were advised on March 2 of the "name, date, transfer [and] security level change," the sequence of events document said.

Head of Corrections Canada Anne Kelly briefed Mendicino's chief of staff on May 16 during a meeting about the transfer. That former chief of staff did not respond to CBC News' request for comment.

On May 25, the assistant commissioner in charge of victim services at Corrections Canada informed the minister's office of the date of Bernardo's transfer, the sequence of events document says.

The assistant commissioner for communications and engagement at Corrections Canada sent "media lines" to Mendicino's office on May 25 saying the transfer was happening on May 29, according to the sequence of events document.

On the day Bernardo was moved, the minister's office called Corrections Canada to explain the reasons for the transfer decision, the sequence of events document said. The minister's office was also informed on May 29 the transfer had been completed, the document said.

The sequence of events document maintains that Mendicino wasn't notified by his staff until May 30, a day after Bernardo was moved from Millhaven Institution in Ontario to La Macaza Institution in Quebec.

WATCH: Mendicino sidesteps questions about Bernardo transfer

Several of the staff members who worked on the file at Mendicino's office during the controversy have moved to other ministers' offices or have left the government. The current public safety minister's office said last week the matter was not something on which it could comment.

A spokesperson for Mendicino said last year that staff didn't tell the minister in advance about Bernardo's upcoming transfer because they "examined possible options for potentially changing the decision over the subsequent period, and were informed there weren't any."

When staff briefed the minister on May 30, he was also told about his "lack of authorities to influence" the transfer, according to a June 13 email that a spokesperson for Mendicino's office sent to CBC News.

Corrections Canada told CBC News it followed its notification protocol and has since "strengthened information sharing procedures with the minister's office."

The Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security is meeting Monday to discuss a request to undertake a study of the reclassification of federal offenders.