On the Issue of Royal Canadian Mounted Police

 “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

  • James Madison (1751 – 1836), The 4th President of the United States


Most of the present problems of the RCMP deal with insufficient civilian control. Originally that control came from Parliament. However, in the last forty years, Parliament, firstly, was unwilling to perform this function. Now, they are unable to supervise this agency. English History tells us that military and paramilitary forces run best when Parliament takes its supervision and oversight responsibilities seriously. Only that will solve the most egregious errors present in the RCMP. 

So let us look at a little bit about English History. 1641 and 1688 are dates which are unfamiliar to most Canadians. They occurred long before the founding of our nation. Yet these dates have a significant influence on Canadian Constitutional History. In 1641, The English Parliament declared, through the Grand Remonstrance, that it had the right to direct the army. While there was some question about the force of the Remonstrance at the time, it was definitively acknowledged by 1688. For, this was this date that the English Stuart Dynasty was disposed of and the Dutch Prince William of Orange was made King of England. To become the new monarch, the Dutch Prince agreed to seek and follow the advice of Parliament.

This has been the tradition ever since in Westminster Style Parliaments around the world. Consequently, while our Governor General – by advice of the Government of Canada – can order the army to move from Montreal to Toronto to Vancouver, only Parliament can declare war on another country or kingdom.

So it should not have been a surprise that our military started planning its Afghani withdrawal in 2008. When Parliament passed an opposition’s motion to withdraw, Parliament’s will became clear. The Conservative Government, while it opposed the motion, had to acknowledge and accept the will of the House of Commons. This is why the Conservatives had to seek the assistance of the Liberals to have any “non-combat” operation in Afghanistan. Parliament, through the authority of her Majesty and her Governor-General, is the final decision maker when it comes to the priorities of our military. Therefore, our system of government is clearly based on civilian control of the military by the Crown (i.e. our executive body); once permission is granted from our legislative body: the House of Commons.

The reason why this history is important is simple: the RCMP’s origins were the same as our militaries.  

So when Parliament created the RCMP, Parliament gave the force the same rights and obligations as our military. When it was created in 1873, the forerunner to the RCMP – The North-West Mounted Police – was essential a military force. Originally to be named the North West Mounted Rifles, the North West Mounted Police was organized along the lines of a cavalry regiment in the British Army, and wore red uniforms. The new police forces’ raison d’etre was to maintain British and Canadian Sovereignty and Law over the North West Territories without antagonizing aboriginals and Americans. It was intended to be a military with policing powers.

So it is not a surprise that the RCMP served in various military capacities during the North West Rebellion, the Boer War, Russian Revolution, World War I and World War II. Even today, the RCMP performs Peacekeeping functions – just like our military – around the world. When formed in 1873, the Commissioner, while appointed by the government, had much independence from the Government. The Commissioner, for example, would appear before Parliament from time to time to report to the forces’ ultimate bosses – the Canadian Public.

This was until it became clear that the RCMP had overstepped its authority. It turned out that during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, the RCMP had investigated politicians for their political leanings. Investigations were launched against New Democrats, Socialist and Separatist politicians for their politics and not for any criminal reasons. Furthermore, the RCMP Security Service was accused of engaging in crimes such as burning a barn and document theft.

These accusations caused Prime Minister Trudeau to call the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Activities of the RCMP, better known as the “McDonald Commission”. That commission suggested that the RCMP be stripped of its responsibility of protecting the Canadian Public from foreign spy agencies. There were also recommendations on the proper role of the federal government and its main police force. 
The report came down in 1981; however, it was not dealt with until 1984. For a couple of small things got in the way: the outcome of the 1980 Quebec Referendum and Constitution Renewal. Between 1980 and 1982, everything got shelved until the Constitution was renegotiation. The fall out of that agreement was more talk and negotiation about what provinces and the federal government should actually do. Consequently, the RCMP was forgotten in the shuffle. 

The Mulroney Government, however, reviewed the file. Firstly, with the consent of Parliament, the Canadian Government did split the RCMP into two. A new organization was created to deal with foreign spy agencies on Canadian soil. It was called the Canadian Security Intelligence Services or CSIS. While the RCMP carried on as the main federal police force in our country.

Secondly, due to their majority, the Conservatives changed the independent and paramilitary nature of the RCMP. Or put differently, they made the RCMP a part of the federal government. The Commission had the equivalent rank of an assistant deputy minister. So for the first time in its history, the RCMP was directly accountable to the government and not directly accountable to Parliament.

This simple action has been the root of all the present day problems with the force. While Parliament, during the 1960 to the 1980s, had forgotten to exercise its role as watchdog over the RCMP; after the Mulroney’s Government actions, Parliament has essentially been stripped of its direct role with the RCMP. One might say it is not surprising that the modern day scandals involving the RCMP started to happen after that. In 1997, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vancouver, Peaceful Demonstrators were pepper-sprayed by the RCMP. After September 11th, the RCMP reconstituted its security branch. Shortly thereafter, Maher Arar was among a number of Canadians who found themselves tortured in the Middle East due to information that was release by this new branch.

But these were not the only incidences. In 2005, Ian Bush was shot in the back of the head in an interrogation room by an RCMP officer in northern B.C. While in 2007, Robert Dziekanski died after he was tasered five times by four RCMP officers on Oct. 14, 2007. His only “crime” was that he spent hours wandering the Vancouver International Airport looking for his mother.

The real problem is that the RCMP has lost focus and no one has investigated its problems. For example, the BC Civil Liberties Association has found that British Columbia has more than twice as many police deaths per capita as Ontario. If one looks at the police structure in Ontario and BC, one can see two significant differences: the RCMP is held to a higher standard and has a reduced role in Ontario policing. Since there is a provincial police force in Ontario, the RCMP cannot have high death rates or it will be replaced.

With all of this being said, one might expect there to be a strong civilian body that can review the actions of the RCMP. Yet, this is not the case. The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP (CPC), the only existing civilian review body, has no management authority. While the Complaints Commission can perform an independent review, it does not have the power to require changes of the RCMP, it can only suggest to the Minister of Public Safety and/or the RCMP Commissioner that changes be made.

The CPC has not authority to review administrative or management matters. Furthermore, its recommendations do not include monetary compensation for damages. It can only recommend a range of options which include remedial training for officers to changes in RCMP policing policy or practices.

While the CPC’s goal is to provide excellence in policing through accountability; one might suggest that it is a “fig leaf” meant to give Canadians the illusion of accountability. For example, in 2008, the then head of the Commission for Public Compliants, Paul Kennedy, conducted an inquiry into the taser death of Mr. Dziekanski. The Toronto Star note that as “head of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP since October 2005, Kennedy has long called for more independent oversight powers — which the government has been promising but delaying for more than two years.” (Nov 27 2009).

However, the Government fired Mr. Kennedy before he had released his report into RCMP actions in regards to the death of Mr. Dziekanski. Consequently, if Mr. Kennedy – a career public servant, former counsel to CSIS and assistant deputy solicitor general – has trouble in review the actions of the RCMP; how is a regular Canadian to trust the same body? Most policies forces in Canada have a civilian body for this purpose. The Toronto Police Services’ 5,170 officers are held accountable to its management board: the Toronto Police Services Board. While the Vancouver Police Board takes care of the Vancouver Police. Even the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has an oversight board: the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC).

So something has to change. We need proper oversight for the RCMP, the only question is where do we start. My proposal would be simple, let us give Parliament back its power to review the actions of the RCMP. Given that it is a body that is already made up of rural and urban Canadians from all Provinces, Parliament as a whole would be a great review body.

More so, the Government and the Opposition should undertake an initiative to make a special standing committee of the Parliament. Made up of both Senators and members of the House of Commons, such a body could be in charge of the strategic management and review of the senior commanders and the commissioner of the RCMP. While, day to day management of the RCMP would be held by the Commissioner of the RCMP; Parliament or a special committee of Parliament would keep the Commissioner and top Commanders inline.

Such a committee would be like SIRC. The committee would review the activities of CSIS to ensure that the extraordinary powers granted to the RCMP are used legally and appropriately, in order to protect Canadians’ rights and freedoms as well as peace, order and good government.  Consequently, this review committee would have the ability to closely scrutinize the activities of the RCMP.

This concept is not foreign to Parliamentary Procedure. For example, the Auditor General pays close attention to the financial activities of the Canadian Government, Parliament and its members. Each year, a report is generated on the effectiveness of the Canadian State. Should the RCMP not have a yearly review to ensure that their policies and procedures are world class in outcome?
Accordingly, the review committee would take a look at policies and issues like budgets, strategic planning, organization and deaths in police custody. Just like other civilian police oversight boards, it would be the governing body of the RCMP. This would not mean that police officers would lose their right to investigate crime. However, it will mean that another set of eyes will look at police organizational procedure. Potential issues to be caught before they become problematic or issues that have arisen can be dealt with by an independent and skilled body. Coupled with a separate secretariat, the RCMP could be allowed to do what it does best: policing. 

Obviously, where serious issues would arise, any standing committee would refer those issues to Parliament itself to review. However, like the Committee on internal economy, the majority of the standing committee work would occur in in-camera sessions. Consequently, no criminal element will know what is going on within the RCMP. But we, the Canadian Public, could be confident that our elected officials are ensuring that the RCMP is on a “leash”. Or put differently, we need an independent police force and not one that will run amuck with power.

This type of review will bring to bear the significant issues that the RCMP has to deal with. In B.C., there is talk of creating yet another provincial police force because of the incompetence of the RCMP. Surely, we can do better. In my mind that starts with Parliamentarians taking responsibility for this lack of review. I pray Parliamentarians will read this and change their ways.

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