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The ONW Salon: Should the RCMP Be Subject To Civilian Oversight?

The RCMP is no stranger to scandals. From the force's barn burning of the 1970's to using pepper spray and strip-searching protesters at the APEC Summit in 1997 to the Commissioner's apology in 2016 for "shameful" conduct from allegations of sexual abuse and discrimination, the force has had its share of controversies.  Now the auditor is suggesting the internal culture is so dysfunctional it requires civilian oversight. Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin on that.



Richard Mahoney:

As the ONW question notes, the sad truth is that our much celebrated and historic national police force is no stranger to scandal. Adding to the is the outrageous intervention of then RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli in the 2006 election, announcing in a letter to then NDP Finance Critic Judy Wascylia-Leis that he was investigating then Finance Minister Ralph Goodale. I was a candidate in that election, and was ahead in a tough race with the NDP candidate of the day, Paul Dewar. Zaccardelli's intervention, in flagrant violation of RCMP procedures on investigations, turned the tide in an election that Liberal Prime Minister Martin was winning with just over three weeks to go. He never recovered from that blow, and Stephen Harper and the Conservatives were elected.

While the history is interesting to some, the real scandal there is that we still do not know why Zaccardelli did it - at immense risk to his reputation and that of the force. Prime Minister Harper wasn't motivated to look into it, and, given that much of the country and both main opposition parties weren't motivated to have an inquiry, the Conservatives got the result they wanted - the defeat of the Martin government. But a dangerous precedent was set and most Canadians would be horrified to see it happen again.

The recent U.S. election had echoes of this in the late campaign announcement of now former FBI Director James Comey that he was reopening the investigation into Hillary Ciinton's emails.

The Trudeau government, mindful of some of the systemic issues, took steps to increase civilian oversight and announced reviews of the RCMP and a few of their challenges. This week's report is the result of that work, and squarely and appropriately puts these challenges on the public table, so that Parliament, the government of Canada and Canadians themselves can assess the challenges, and, collectively, we can all assess what further steps are required.  


Tom Parkin:

There is a much bigger story here than the complaints of the Liberal party, as valid as they may be.

We are confronted by a systemic failing in our police force. Ian McPhail, chair of the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP, warned that the abuse has been so bad it has undermined criminal investigations. This is an issue for the officers and an issue for every Canadian.

It's impossible to say if the reforms being suggested in Monday's report will be sufficient to change the culture of the RCMP and allow officers to do their jobs for us. What seems clear is that the organization's shortcomings over the past years are linked to the allegations of workplace harassment (including sexual harassment). And there seems to be no internal drive for change. Much of the abuse is against officers from their supervisors – suggesting a culture of bullying within management. A management culture predicated on bullying is unlikely to reform itself from within.

For many years officers sought to form a union and thus have a grievance procedure which would have addressed at least some of these issues. That idea was fought by RCMP management and politicians – and now we have this report today.

Due to a Supreme Court ruling, officers can now join a union. And this report now puts more pressure on management to manage effectively – rather than rely on bully tactics. Whether this will be sufficient is impossible to know, but they are good steps and every Canadian has a stake in their successful outcome. We will have to keep monitoring.


John Capobianco:

Richard brings up the 2006 case where then RCMP Commissioner Zaccardelli’s public involvement in a case was wrong – or ill timed. Notwithstanding my good friend’s loss during that election in 2006 (Richard would have made a great MP), which also saw his mentor Paul Martin lose to Stephen Harper, I think it would be a stretch to blame the election defeat solely on the RCMP.

It is the same argument we are hearing in the U.S., where conspiracy theorists believe the Russians fixed the election - that at no point was Hilary's disastrous campaign to be blamed. Like all conspiracy theories, there is some truth somewhere in the argument and getting to it is the challenge.

I am not going to dwell on the Zaccardelli case because there could be an argument, much like with what FBI Director Comey did during the U.S. elections with his investigations into Hilary's e-mails, that says there is no good time when you are in the middle of an election.

However, that case did bring to light shortcomings with the RCMP which have been exacerbated over the years, culminating in several studies and reviews of the RCMP's conduct, including recent ones calling for radical reforms. The culture of sexual harassment that seems to be throughout the force is extremely troubling and from the reports, nothing has been done to correct the situation.

We can do reports and studies into the way the RCMP could be managed better or try and fix its governance model, but there clearly needs to be acceptance by all political officials and RCMP officials that change is required and needed - and fast.


Richard Mahoney:

I agree with much of what Tom and John have said. We can debate the importance of the RCMP intervention in the 2006 election another time, but two things: first, it was an abuse of power for the police authority to do such a thing, and abuse of power and position are central to some of the findings of the two reports commissioned by the Minister of Public Safety, Ralph Goodale. Secondly, to John’s point about the impact, the federal Liberals dropped ten percentage points on the release of that letter. That should be enough evidence to confirm its impact.

Back to the reports at hand. Minister Goodale and the government commissioned these two reports in order to find out what the challenges are and what needs to be done. They have made it clear that they are strongly committed to taking whatever action necessary to help RCMP members, trainees and employees feel safe and respected at work.

The two reports, one by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP and the other from former Auditor General Sheila Fraser, describe similar concerns relating to harassment and bullying within our national police force. These issues are serious and systemic. Tom is right to say that we don't know whether or not the extensive measures recommended in these reports will be enough, but they certainly seem well thought out.

It is true that we all have a stake in this - a reformed and improved national police force is important and we need it to do the job it is charged to do well, and RCMP personnel deserve a safe place to work.

The Trudeau government is currently searching for a new Commissioner to lead the RCMP, and that will be an important decision. In the meantime, the government has asked its officials to develop options for how best to respond to the findings of these two reports. It seems like a thorough and thoughtful way to deal with these challenges - essentially harassment and bullying.

One thing seems clear to me: civilian oversight and oversight by Parliament will help inform the debate and help get us all to a better result - a reformed and improved RCMP that lives up to its place as a national institution.


Tom Parkin:

Let's remember how big this problem is and how deep management and politicians let it get.

Back in 2016 the Mounties had to apologize and give $100 million in compensation to female officers and employees who were sexually harassed and abused. At that time RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson called it shameful conduct and he was on the evening news, tears on his face, about the situation.

I have great difficulty believing Paulson and RCMP upper management took all reasonable efforts to ensure bullying and abuse was eliminated from RCMP management culture. And looking at this report – why would they? Once again, in this report nobody gets any blame, nobody is accountable, no one pays a price, no one is moved out of the way. It's bigger than one person, says the report. I wonder, in what world outside the Ottawa bubble could this happen? How has Ottawa’s sense of accountability gone wrong?

Massive mismanagement – abuse so offensive it has put Canadian justice at risk – and has anyone lost their job or been charged with even the mildest offense for mismanaging our national police force to this degree?

Is there a devil’s pact between RCMP management and politicians? Or does someone know the location of closets with skeletons in them? Is Ottawa so broken that nobody is accountable for the abuse, harassment and bullying of the RCMP’s men and women? The failure is so large and the accountability so little that these worrying questions linger.


John Capobianco:

These recent reports are as comprehensive as they get by two very credible sources and they both deserve the proper and diligent review from the Minister. I will take the Minister at his word that he is going to come back in an expedited manner saying that he intends “to bring forward for a government decision very, very quickly”.

The challenge is that we have heard that before and others on the political side of the equation have tried in some measure to fix the problem, but this is akin to putting fresh new paint on a rusted car - you need to fix the inside before you can start working on the outside.

Commissioner Paulson, who is retiring in June of this year, says he has put in place certain reforms within the force to address the bullying and harassment charges, but admits that it takes time for these reforms and inner changes to take affect. Here is the problem: no one has any more patience for this taking time to resolve - and from the sounds of it, Minister Goodale doesn't either.

Lets hope that is the case, as Canadians are watching and will be making it clear that there is no more room for further studies and reports - action to fix the problem needs to happen now.

The experts have provided their feedback: the politicians are now up.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 




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