The Mounties have been down this road before—and bled as a result. Then, it was the 1970s: an inquiry headed by Justice David McDonald investigated the force’s role in a barn-burning in Quebec and other excesses. That time, the country’s national police force—and most-recognized symbol after the Maple Leaf—was stripped of its intelligence arm. Now, an RCMP Public Complaints Commission panel has been examining the force’s use of pepper spray against protesters at last November’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vancouver—possibly on instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office, if not from the man himself. And this time, the RCMP stands to lose even more.
Much damage has been done already. The inquiry that the force has relied on publicly to clear its name adjourned, beset by setbacks, on Oct. 23. It was to resume on Nov. 16. But the panel is under scrutiny by the Federal Court of Canada for a growing list of alleged biases—including possibly prejudicial statements against the RCMP attributed to both panel chairman Gerald Morin and the minister to whom he reports, federal Solicitor General Andy Scott. Last week, commission spokeswoman Susie Stewart acknowledged that when the panel reconvenes, it will only be to postpone hearings—possibly into next year—to give
the court time to consider the inquiry’s future.
The Mounties, meanwhile, felt yet more heat last week. According to several reports, a special RCMP task force had recommended criminal charges, including the use of excessive force, against 11 officers involved in APEC security. Provincial Crown attorneys decided not to pursue charges; last week, they refused to say why, citing their desire not to prejudice the inquiry. RCMP spokesmen first confirmed the report, then backpedalled, insisting the task force had simply compiled evidence—but had not urged that charges be laid. But with the opposition in Ottawa demanding a full judicial inquiry into the APEC fiasco, new pressures on the RCMP added to rising doubts about the force’s future in British Columbia.
The RCMP acts as the B.C. provincial police, as well as patrolling most of the province’s municipalities. But B.C. Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh has complained repeatedly in recent weeks that Mountie budget restraints have increasingly left British Columbians defenseless against crime. In an attempt to make up for $8.5 million in overspending last year, the B.C. division of the RCMP this fall idled its aircraft, tied up its marine units, restricted travel and refused to pay overtime for members who take calls after working hours in remote detachments. Privately, officers say many special units and even some
large investigations have been compromised. “Cutbacks to the RCMP have forced me to question the federal government’s commitment to a national RCMP presence in our country,” said Dosanjh last week, before a meeting with Scott at which the federal minister refused to put more money into RCMP operations in British Columbia. If the province becomes too dissatisfied, Dosanjh has hinted, it may set up its own provincial police modelled on forces in Ontario and Quebec.
Unresolved doubts about the RCMP’s role at APEC are likely to strengthen arguments for Dosanjh to take that radical step. Earlier this year, his department cut the ribbon for a new independent police commission to provide a check on B.C. municipal police forces—four years after an inquiry catalogued shortcomings in accountability. One criticism of the new commission was that it would be unable to act as a check on the activities of the RCMP in the province. (Under federal legislation, that is the job of the public complaints commission.) Notes Dan Koenig, a professor at the University of Victoria who specializes in policing issues: “There is no question the RCMP’s reputation has been badly damaged. The pressure of public opinion may become so great that Dosanjh feels he must replace the force.”
To Koenig, that would be a giant step backward—for the RCMP and the country. Thirty per cent of the Mounties in uniform serve in British Columbia. Disband them, Koenig predicts, and it will become difficult for the RCMP to muster the force to cope with possible future crises such as native standoffs, or major security details at such international meetings as a G-7 summit— or APEC. But what troubles him, Koenig admits, is the possibility of losing a daily reminder of British Columbia’s ties to the larger nation beyond the Rockies. Koenig calls it “outrageous” that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien would risk tarnishing the reputation, let alone risk the future, of “one of the few symbols of national unity that reaches all the way out to British Columbia.”
It is a somewhat shaken symbol already. Operational restraints, together with the continuing furor over APEC, have sent morale plummeting. “I have very little faith in our senior officers,” lamented one Mountie after weeks of public criticism of the force was left largely unanswered before the inquiry adjourned. “I see very little standing up for principle.” Official spokesmen for the force—and lawyers for the 41 individual RCMP officers against whom complaints were lodged after APEC—insist a different picture will emerge when all the evidence is in. But as the Vancouver panel awaits its own date in court, that day is indefinitely delayed—even as clouds gather over the future of the force in British Columbia.
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