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Yukon and federal New Democrats renewed calls this month for a civilian RCMP oversight agency, in light of the December 2008 death of Raymond Silverfox, who had spent 13 hours in Whitehorse RCMP cells. ((Family photo))

The federal government's plan to create a civilian watchdog agency for the RCMP has met mixed reviews in Yukon, where two deaths of men who had been in RCMP custody had made headlines in recent months.

The government introduced a bill on Monday to create a civilian watchdog agency with "enhanced investigative powers" to probe allegations of RCMP misconduct.

The proposed legislation follows the Conservative government's promise to move away from the existing practice of the RCMP investigating complaints against itself.

"It's in the right direction, of course — more independence, more transparency, more resources and more powers," Yukon Liberal MP Larry Bagnell told CBC News.

But the Yukon's New Democrats, along with their federal counterparts, say they want a special civilian unit to investigate all serious incidents involving the RCMP, not just complaints against the police force.

Bill falls 'far short': Yukon NDP

"My gut instinct is that what they will doing is putting in something that really falls far short of what's been requested and what is required," Yukon NDP leader Elizabeth Hanson said.

The Yukon NDP and other organizations have been demanding a full public inquiry into the 2008 death of Raymond Silverfox, 43, who was in Whitehorse RCMP cells for 13 hours before he died.

A coroner's inquest in April revealed that RCMP officers and guards did not get medical help for Silverfox, even though he had vomited profusely while in custody. Some officers and guards also mocked Silverfox in his cell, the inquest heard.

There has also been some controversy over the May 2 death of Robert Stone, 34, who died in a Whitehorse detoxification centre after spending about seven hours in RCMP custody.

Can summon witnesses

Currently there is an independent Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, but its recommendations are non-binding, and it cannot compel witnesses to come forward or provide evidence.

The proposed new oversight body, which would be called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Review and Complaints Commission, would have powers to summon witnesses and compel them to provide evidence or documents.

In introducing the bill, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said members of the public would be able to submit complaints to the commission, as long as they do so within one year of the alleged misconduct.

But under the proposed legislation, the commission's chairperson must seek ministerial approval for self-initiated investigations.

Toews said the proposed new commission's recommendations would not be binding.

British Columbia NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who introduced a private member's bill in November calling for a civilian RCMP watchdog, has already criticized the proposed new commission on Monday for not being able to issue binding recommendations.

Special unit proposed

The bill would also formalize an interim RCMP policy where, in most cases of death or serious injury, Mounties will not investigate other Mounties, Toews said.

But Hanson said it appears that the federal government expects provinces and territories to set up their own civilian investigation units — something that she said would be too expensive in Yukon, which is served entirely by the RCMP.

"The police operate very, very well and do their job extremely well 95, 99 per cent of the time," she said.

"What you need a body like this to be able to spring into action for is on those very rare occasions when something goes wrong, as something terribly went wrong with the Silverfox situation."

Paul Kennedy, the former chairman of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, said one option would be to set up a special Ottawa-based investigations unit that could respond quickly to RCMP-related incidents in northern and remote communities.

"That would be like a flying squad, if I could call it that, that could be sent from headquarters," Kennedy said.

Short of that, Kennedy said, the Yukon RCMP should ensure that investigations into serious incidents involving Mounties continue to be done by outside police forces.