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RCMP braces for rough week as calls for a shakeup mount

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 2017-05-14 Tonda MacCharles - Ottawa Bureau reporter
  © Sean Kilpatrick/La Presse canadienne  

OTTAWA—A radical idea is being floated — or more precisely, revived — as a way for the RCMP and its political masters to grapple with all that ails the force.

The looming departure of Commissioner Bob Paulson has prompted some rank-and-file Mounties to call for a joint management approach to running the RCMP instead of the top-down hierarchical system some believe has left it unable to adapt to modern workplace expectations and norms.

Three reports will bring the RCMP’s workplace woes into sharp focus this week.

On Monday, the results of an investigation into systemic workplace harassment in the national police force are to be released by the independent watchdog of the RCMP, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission. It’s the first investigation conducted since the watchdog got more robust powers in 2014.

In addition, the Star has learned the Liberal government has received and may also release this week a separate report by former auditor general Sheila Fraser into how the RCMP handled complaints by four female employees.

Cpl. Catherine Galliford, Cpl. Susan Gastaldo, Const. Alice Fox and Atoya Montague, a civilian member of the RCMP in B.C., sued the force for harassment. Their treatment at the hands of their superiors appeared so egregious that the public safety minister last year demanded Fraser’s outside review.

(Meanwhile, the RCMP’s and the government’s proposed $100-million settlement of two broader class action lawsuits launched by women who suffered sexual- and gender-based harassment is still in limbo, more than seven months after the RCMP offered a formal apology. The proposal is awaiting final court approvals before even a dollar of actual compensation can be paid out.)

On Tuesday, auditor general Michael Ferguson will release his audit of whether the RCMP’s mental health programs provide adequate early detection intervention and support for continuous improvement for its employees.

The trio of reports are expected to paint a bleak picture, sources told the Star.

If all that weren’t enough, searing testimony in an ongoing trial in a Moncton courtroom is a reminder that RCMP management decisions involve life-and-death consequences.

Three years after lone gunman Justin Bourque went on a shooting rampage that left three Mounties dead and two wounded, the RCMP faces four charges of violating Canada’s workplace health and safety laws.

Officers say they were outgunned by Bourque and, in all the chaos, at his mercy. Bourque pleaded guilty a few months afterward. Yet it is still harrowing to hear how the carnage unfolded from the officers’ perspectives.

Const. Martine Benoit felt as if she was just “waiting to be shot again” as Bourque fired multiple rounds into the police cruiser she crouched behind. She saw Const. Eric Dubois, who came to her aid, get shot after he peered out to see where Bourque was.

Const. Andrew Johnstone tried in vain to save Const. David Ross’s life, then strapped on hard body armour only to learn later he’d put it on “backwards.”

Each charge under the Canada Labour Code of failing to adequately inform, train and equip its officers to confront active shooters like Bourque carries a potential $1-million fine.

More important will be the message such a conviction would send: that RCMP managers failed Canadians, and failed their own.

The trial is expected to last two months.

By the time it’s over, the RCMP — a police force organized along paramilitary top-down chain-of-command lines, with no civilian police services board — could have a new boss.

Paulson announced in March he’ll retire at the end of June. A selection committee to find his successor has yet to be named, but will be announced in the coming weeks, the Star has learned.

The delay is confounding to many. Conservative and NDP critics say it is important to get a strong new leader at the top sooner than later.

Tony Clement, Conservative public safety critic, said the broader the search for the right leader, the better. He said many of the issues, including recruitment and retention, facing the RCMP are “quite complex and they involve the morale, and they involve almost the psychic ability of the force to do the job, not just the kit they have. These are things that I believe require the decision-makers to think outside the box.”

Now, with that looming vacancy at the top, some are suggesting it’s time to finally create a management board for the force.

That includes organizers of a drive to unionize about 18,000 front-line Mounties under the banner of the National Police Federation. With more than 10,300 card-carrying members, the NPF has filed an application to be certified as the national bargaining agent.

Brian Sauvé, co-founder of the federation, says Paulson’s departure represents an opportunity. “We are in the process of writing to the minister of public safety and the prime minister’s office,” Sauvé said, to suggest that “perhaps we shouldn’t have a new commissioner just yet. Perhaps the organization should spend some time evolving into its future state.”

Sauvé said it might take some kind of joint management committee “to assess where we’ve been, where we are and where we want to go to . . . maintain the confidence of the Canadian public.”

“We’re trying to think outside the box,” he said, listing a “viper’s nest” of issues that faces any incoming commissioner. “It might just be too much for one person. Do we — Canada — put one person in charge of that task, or are we setting them up to fail?”

Matthew Dubé, NDP public safety critic, said more civilian oversight and more accountability for the force is “extremely important.”

“When we look at a lot of the culture change that’s necessary, whether it’s the drive to unionize or the sexual harassment issues that came up over and over again, some good steps have been taken but there’s certainly still a lot of work to be done. By increasing accountability . . . I think it can give a good kick in the butt to the folks who need to show leadership on those files.”

In 2007, a federal task force recommended a civilian management board for the RCMP. So did successive reports from the independent RCMP reform council. The idea was to guide the RCMP’s non-operational activities to ensure it didn’t lose its way again.

In January, Liberal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale seemed open to the idea as “a concept that needs to be very carefully examined and determined whether that would work effectively given the nature and the character and the tradition of the force . . . . That would be a massive administrative and structural change for the RCMP, so I think you have to think it through very carefully, bearing in mind the principles and the tradition by which the force has functioned for well over 100 years.”

On Friday, Goodale’s office pointed to the pending reports on harassment in the force from Sheila Fraser and the CRCC and said “it would be premature to comment further on possible changes to the RCMP at this point.”

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