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Toronto Star
  • Suzanne Côté waged $200,000 tax battle over clothes with Quebec tax agency

    MONTREAL—The newest member of the Supreme Court of Canada is a corporate law expert, but a lengthy fight to be able to deduct more than $200,000 in clothing and “personal care” expenses from her annual earnings has given her a unique window into the tax system.

    Madame Justice Suzanne Côté battled five years with Revenu Québec, the provincial tax agency, after she claimed annual expenses of $50,000 to buy work clothes for each of three years from 2004 to 2006. During that same period, the top-flight Montreal lawyer claimed more than $25,000 in expenses related to personal care, as well as other miscellaneous items.

    Court documents show that Côté made claims for tax deductions totalling $204,685 over those three years and that those claims were rejected by the Quebec tax agency. The documents were obtained by the Journal de Montréal, which first reported on their existence Wednesday. The newspaper provided those documents to the Star.

    The lawyer with 34 years’ experience took Revenu Québec to court in 2009 to have its ruling overturned. In a May 2009 court filing, she argued that her job required her to “incur various expenses for the purchase of clothing and uniforms to be used at the office, in court and during professional activities.”

    She denied that the claims were for personal clothing and argued that they were “reasonable.”

    “The expenses are related to the running of a business by the claimant and were incurred to earn a salary,” she argued in her claim.

    Revenu Québec noted in a statement of defence that it began auditing Côté’s expense claims in 2007 and that she refused on four separate occasions to provide receipts or other documents that would justify her claims.

    The documents that tax auditors were seeking were eventually filed as exhibits in the court case, but were removed from the public court file when the two sides reached an out-of-court settlement on Sept. 13, 2012. That settlement makes it impossible to know what types of clothing items or personal care services Côté claimed as work-related expenses, what final agreement was reached between Côté and the Quebec government, or how much she eventually paid in taxes.

    A spokesperson for the Supreme Court of Canada said that Côté had declined an interview request on the matter. But she got the backing of the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday.

    “The matters between Justice Côté and Revenu Québec were resolved years ago,” said spokesman Carl Vallée.

    Dick Pound, a Montreal tax lawyer who is perhaps better known as the former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), said disagreements over allowable tax deductions for work clothing have a long history stretching back to jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, who tried to deduct the cost of his ubiquitous dinner jackets as a work-related expense.

    Plainclothes police officers, however, were allowed to deduct the costs of a specially tailored suit jacket to accommodate weapons carried in a shoulder holster, Pound said.

    “There’s been an expansion of the concept of what you have to do as a lawyer, as an RCMP officer or an entertainer to earn your living,” he said. “There’s a range of honest disagreement that is entirely normal in tax matters. In my experience, 95 per cent of all disagreements with taxation authorities end up being settled. Sensible people come to sensible conclusions.”

    Côté was named to the top court last month by the Conservative government after the retirement of Justice Louis LeBel.

    Vallée said Côté is one of the most experienced litigators in the country and that her appointment was supported by the Quebec government, members of the province’s legal community and the Canadian Bar Association among others.

  • Canada ?facilitated? Cuba-U.S. talks, Stephen Harper says

    OTTAWA—Over 18 months, senior Cuban and American officials huddled in secret locations in Ottawa and Toronto plotting the makings of a dramatic new relationship between their two countries.

    It played out like a spy novel as they met for secret rendezvous in commercial establishments and government buildings, all of it under a cloak of silence, known only to the small group of Canadian officials who helped facilitate the unprecedented sessions.

    On Thursday, President Barack Obama revealed the dramatic outcome of those hush-hush meetings — that the United States and Cuba were moving to end their 50-year diplomatic standoff.

    And the president thanked Canada for acting as host for the discussions.

    Prime Minister Stephen Harper played down Canada’s role and welcomed the development, which he called probably too long in coming.

    “I don’t want to exaggerate Canada’s role,” he told CBC News. “We facilitated places where the two countries could have a dialogue and explore ways of normalizing the relationship.

    “That’s what we did and we think it’s a good development, probably an overdue development.”

    Harper said Canada did not participate in the talks. “We were not trying in any way to direct or mediate the talks,” he told CBC in a year-end interview.

    “I personally believe changes are coming in Cuba and this will facilitate those. But look, I’m pleased the president acknowledged our role in this.”

    Of Cuba, he said, “I think that’s an economy and a society just overdue for entering into the 21st century.”

    Harper said he expects change in Cuba to accelerate after the current generation of leadership passes.

    Asked about the possibility of democratic elections there, he said, “I think other changes will probably occur before that. But certainly I would hope we’ll see that.

    “Although we have some tainted democracies in the hemisphere, this is really the only place where there are elections that are completely non-competitive,” Harper added. He said he hopes that will “eventually” change.

    Ottawa got a request in 2013 from Washington asking if the federal government could facilitate a series of meetings that required an “incredible amount of discretion,” a senior source told the Star Thursday.

    “Our role was to provide a secure location where the U.S. officials and the Cuban officials could meet to discuss what ultimately led to today’s announcement by the president, recognizing that this is a very, obviously important set of discussions that they had but also very sensitive,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

    There were seven meetings in all, held in Ottawa and Toronto starting in the summer of 2013 and none of it was leaked.

    “It speaks to the level of trust that I think exists between our two countries and our willingness to help each other out,” the source said.

    He said that Canadian diplomats were not part of the negotiations, adding it was only a “very, very small” group of Canadians involved.

    Canada, which maintained diplomatic ties with Cuba after the U.S. broke off relations with the island nation when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, has over the decades tried to play a constructive role in relations between Cuba and its neighbours. Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau had good relations with Castro, who attended Trudeau’s state funeral in 2000.

    Canadian businesses have continued over the years to invest in Cuba and it became a prime destination for thousands Canadian tourists — factors that were immensely valuable to an island nation battered by the embargo imposed by Washington in 1960.

    Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau noted Canada’s friendships with both the U.S. and Cuba, which allowed it to act as host to the critical discussions.

    “To see the welcome steps of building ties between the two countries appear today is a very good piece of news and I look forward to Canada continuing to play a positive role in brining together those two countries,” Trudeau said.

    NDP MP Paul Dewar also praised the steps taken by Obama.

    “President Obama has made major progress in normalizing relations with Cuba and I believe this will be beneficial to the people of Cuba,” Dewar said in a statement.

  • Eaton Centre shooting: Christopher Husbands guilty of two counts of second-degree murder

    When Christopher Husbands opened fire in the crowded Eaton Centre food court on a Saturday evening more than two years ago, the act of reckless violence shook the city.

    Ahmed Hassan, 24, died instantly on the floor of the mall, Nixon Nirmalendran, 22, died nine days later in the hospital after being shot eight times. Five bystanders were wounded in the hail of bullets, including a 13-year-old boy shot in the head who needed multiple brain surgeries and the removal of a part of his skull to survive. A pregnant woman was trampled in the ensuing panic.

    On Wednesday evening in a downtown courthouse just a short walk away from the Eaton Centre, a jury found Husbands, 25, guilty of two counts of second-degree murder, rejecting the defence argument that he was in a trauma-induced robotic state and not criminally responsible for his actions.

    After 13 hours of deliberating, the jury also rejected the Crown’s argument that these were planned and deliberate murders. It was a question the jury seemed to be wrestling with Wednesday afternoon, when they asked the jury to explain the law around first-degree murder, specifically how long it could take to form a plan and deliberate the pros and cons.

    Husbands was also found guilty of five counts of aggravated assault, one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm and one count of recklessly discharging a firearm.

    As the jury filed out of the courtroom, Husbands slowly shook his head and whispered something only he could hear.

    “(Husbands) is sad that the jury did not accept his explanation for what happened in the Eaton Centre,” said defence lawyer Dirk Derstine, adding an appeal is being considered. “Mental disorder is not a very widely recognized disorder in our society. It’s difficult to imagine that someone who points a gun at various different people wasn’t doing it intentionally.”

    Hassan’s father Abdullahi Hassan Roble, a constant presence in the courtroom throughout the trial, said the past two-and-a-half years have been a very “painful and excruciating time” for their family.

    “Finally, today it’s over,” he said. Like the father of Connor Stevenson, the resilient now 16-year-old who was shot, he had hoped for a verdict of first-degree murder.

    “The decision was met with mixed emotion,” Craig Stevenson said. “We’re happy that it’s done and we can move on and that (Husbands) will be behind bars. We are a little disappointed that he was not found guilty of first-degree, except for the fact that (the jury) saw beyond not criminally responsible.”

    A sentencing hearing has been set for Jan. 9.

    It was admitted at the start of the trial in mid-October that Husbands was the shooter. As seen on video surveillance footage from June 2, 2012, Husbands gunned down Hassan and stood over Nirmalendran as he shot him four more times at point blank range.

    The Crown argued this was planned revenge on the men who had stabbed Husbands multiple times in an attack months before. The defence argued that Husbands, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after the stabbing, was so terrified when he saw his attackers threaten him as they entered the food court that he “zoned out.”

    The chilling videos played to the jury repeatedly are clear, a “frozen memory,” as Superior Court Justice Eugene Ewaschuk put it in his charge to the 12 jury members.

    But when Husbands took the stand in his defence for four days, he claimed to recall almost none of it.

    He remembers hearing Nixon Nirmalendran say: “Shoot him” and seeing Nirmalendran’s younger brother, Nisan, reach into his jacket pocket as if for a gun. (No other witness testified about hearing or seeing this, and it cannot be seen on the video.)

    “I was terrified. I was thinking, this guy’s gonna shoot me. I’m gonna die,” Husbands testified.

    “The next thing, I’m ducking and then I hear this loud bang.

    “It just seemed like everything got kind of dark, everything looked like a shadow … shadows going down to the ground, to the side. I heard what sounded like pins dropping. It must have been the bullet casings.”

    He testified that he first realized what had happened when he got home and turned on CP24.

    The expert evidence presented by the defence and the Crown presented starkly different views.

    Expert for the defence, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Julian Gojer, testified that Husbands was in a “dissociative state” during the shooting, arising from post-traumatic stress disorder. He was acting like a “robotic automaton” and is not criminally responsible, Gojer told the jury.

    The Crown argued this was “ridiculous.”

    Their expert, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Peter Collins also diagnosed Husbands with moderate PTSD at the time of the shooting, but said it is extremely rare for a dissociative state to occur. It does not happen in violent circumstances like these and only in cases where the PTSD is severe, he said.

    Prosecutor Mary Humphrey suggested in her closing arguments to the jury that amnesia is a “convenient refuge” for people who find themselves in trouble with the law.

    The incident that the defence argued led to Husbands’ PTSD was a violent ambush in February 2012.

    Husbands testified he was attacked at an apartment by a group of men he knew from Regent Park, including the Nirmalendrans. Hassan and the two other men in the group at the Eaton Centre were not there, he said.

    He testified he was beaten and dragged towards the bathroom, where the bath faucet was running. He was bound with duct tape, his face covered. The men stabbed him repeatedly — 35 times — and struck him with a gun, breaking his orbital bone. He was hospitalized for three days.

    Whatever the reasons for the attack — Husbands told the jury he didn’t know why — the Crown argued that Husbands wanted to “get even” with those who had hurt him and wanted them to “feel the same pain he was feeling,” as a colleague at the City of Toronto Boys and Girls Club testified he told her.

    So he armed himself with a loaded Glock and planned to take the opportunity whenever it presented itself to kill the men responsible for stabbing him, the Crown argued.

    Husbands flatly denied this.

    After the stabbing he changed, he told the court. He started having flashbacks and became hypervigilant and paranoid. He feared crowds, and his girlfriend LaChelle John had to force him to come with her to the Eaton Centre on June 2 to buy rollerblades.

    The Crown suggests his PTSD symptoms were exaggerated and that his feelings of paranoia stemmed from his drug-dealing and flagrant violation of his bail terms, including house arrest for a sex-assault charge on which he was later convicted.

    John said she was buying Husbands sushi to try for the first time when Nixon and Nisan Nirmalendran, Hassan, Robert Cada and Ahmed Nuri — who has since disappeared and is believed to be in Africa — came down the escalator.

    Nisan Nirmalendran was shot dead almost a year after the Eaton Centre shooting.

    According to a statement Nuri gave to the police, Husbands said, “Waddup” or “Waddup pussy.” Robert Cada testified that he heard Husbands say: “What” and John also said she heard Husbands say: “What.”

    Husbands said he heard “Shoot him” and saw Nisan Nirmalendran reach as if for a gun. There was no evidence Nisan or any of the five men were carrying a gun.

    If the jury were to find Husbands was lying about the statement and the gesture, Ewaschuk said in his charge, “there is no evidentiary basis to find that he experienced a dissociative state.”

    Or, as the Crown put it during the trial, the “house of cards” would come tumbling down.

    The jury was given several options: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter, not criminally responsible, and not guilty.

    Second-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence, with a parole ineligibility period to be set between 10 and 25 years.

    Prosecutor Humphrey said they would be seeking consecutive parole ineligibility periods under a new law applying to cases of multiple murders that has only been used in two previous cases.

    Defence lawyer Derstine said they are considering challenging the constitutionality of that law.

    “It’s never been part of the law in Canada and we could argue that its application is cruel and unusual,” he said.

Arts & Letters
Trudy
Sunday, 12 August 2007