The RCMP bungled its handling of demonstrations at the 1997 APEC summit in Vancouver, according to the long-awaited report of the inquiry that looked into police actions there.

The report from inquiry commissioner Ted Hughes is critical of RCMP top brass, and also concludes that the government twice tried to interfere with police operations during the summit held on the campus of the University of British Columbia.

In his 453-page report, former judge Hughes found police actions in November 1997 "did not meet an acceptable and expected standard of competence and professionalism and proficiency.

He noted "many examples of substandard performance reflect failures in the planning process." That, according to Hughes, was perhaps the RCMP's biggest error lack of proper planning.

The RCMP says it has received the report, but in a press release said it has not had a chance to review it.

There were 52 formal complaints filed about police actions at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit. Protesters complained about being pepper-sprayed, strip-searched, and having had their rights infringed.

Hughes concluded that many of those complaints were well-founded, that the pepper spraying was unnecessary, that the strip-searches of women were inappropriate, and that the way some protesters were dealt with was inconsistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But he laid the bulk of the blame for those problems with the RCMP leadership, and the poor job done planning the operation, rather than with the officers on the ground.

In the most notorious scene from the summit, Staff Sgt. Hugh Stewart used pepper spray to force protesters to stop blocking a roadway. Hughes said Stewart made unfortunate decisions in the incident, but that he was hampered by poor planning and was given four minutes to open a path.

Protesters had blocked all the exits from the UBC campus, and police had no contingency plan.

"If there were errors committed, they were errors committed in the heat of circumstances, rather than because the officers set out to infringe rights or were disrespectful of human rights," said Kevin Woodall, a lawyer for the RCMP.

The inquiry, troubled itself, took three years and $10 million to complete. Hughes replaced the original commission when all three panelists quit after several months of hearings.

Responses to the report so far have ranged from lukewarm to outright dismissive.

"The report will go down in history as one of the most expensive doorstops ever," predicts protester Jaggi Singh.

"I'm pleased that most of the central complaints brought by the students have been found to be well founded by Mr. Hughes," said Marilyn Sandford, a lawyer for three of the complainants.

"The fact that the report does actually call the police on a number of things is significant and people should certainly pay attention to that," said Garth Mullins, another protester. "On the other hand, I just don't want it to be considered a victory or great justice handed from on high, because of what it doesn't include."

What it doesn't include, is an indictment of Prime Minister Jean Chrtien, who many believed interfered with security operations because he was concerned about embarrassing visiting leaders, especially Indonesia's Suharto.

Hughes did conclude that the Prime Minister's Office did interfere with security operations, but it was director of operations Jean Carle, not the prime minister, who was throwing his weight around.

Chrtien, according to Hughes, acted in a way that was "proper, acceptable and to be expected of the host of a significant international event such as the APEC conference."

"This is a fundamentally important matter in the history of Canada," said Michael Doherty of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. "What happens in the next few days and weeks is going to indicate the extent to which our system of government works as it's supposed to or not."

The inquiry heard from more than 150 witnesses between October 1998 and April 2000.

Its recommendations are not binding on the RCMP.