Analysis

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson wrestled with thorny issues of harassment, mental health

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson retires today as Canada's top cop. His 31-year career ends on a sour note, as a series of recent reports say the RCMP is too secretive and has done too little to remedy workplace harassment and mental health issues.

Retiring leader made headway in many sensitive areas, but successor will inherit a force in flux

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, who retires June 30, oversaw 5½ tumultuous years when internal strife at times overshadowed operational success. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Leaning forward in his chair, shoulders rolled forward and staring at the ground, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson explained to the court why he'd traveled to Moncton, N.B., to testify at the labour code trial.

"I am the commissioner of the RCMP, I am accountable for the safety of my officers. So I'm here," he told Crown prosecutor Paul Adams.

The RCMP stands accused of several violations of Canada's Labour Code in connection with the June 2014 shooting rampage in Moncton that led to the deaths of three constables and injury of two others.

"Are you then ready to take any responsibility for the deaths of those three officers?" Adams asked.

"No," replied Paulson.

Inside the courtroom and on the front lines of policing across Canada, people struggled to understand what Paulson was being accountable for.

And it wasn't the first time.

'A cop's cop'

Paulson retires from the force today after 31 years on the force, 5½ of them as commissioner. He was appointed in November 2011 after a quick rise through the RCMP's executive ranks.

"People forget he came into the leadership role at a very volatile moment, in the wake of what some people called a mutiny," recalled Andrew House, former chief of staff for then public safety minister Vic Toews.

That clash was between senior Mounties and the RCMP's first civilian commissioner, William Elliott.

"The leadership class were in disarray, which in an institution such as the RCMP can be dangerous for the entire country. Someone needed to right the ship, and quickly, and in my view he got the job done," House told CBC News.

Outgoing commissioner William Elliott, left, takes part in a change-of-command ceremony for Paulson as he is installed as the 23rd commissioner of the RCMP in Ottawa on Dec. 8, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The force was also dealing with allegations of excessive use of force, failed criminal investigations and a toxic workplace culture.

On the day Toews introduced the new commissioner to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons, Paulson talked about his priorities.

"Accountability and leadership will be areas of focus for me and my team as we go forward," he said, adding he wanted to tackle emerging allegations of workplace sexual harassment and abuse inside the force.

House said Paulson immediately instituted a sense of calm authority and accessibility.

Inside the RCMP, many breathed a sigh of relief.

Several regular members and high-ranking officers told CBC News they were relieved the government had appointed a "cop's cop," a straight-talking hard worker who they could trust on operational matters.

"His focus was on the primacy of operations as he obviously perceived there to be a deficiency in the attention to and the quality of investigations. There had been an erosion of public confidence in the police," said retired chief superintendent Angela Workman-Stark.

While the guts of the RCMP were roiling, critics and supporters alike credit Paulson with keeping the force focused on its central mandate of enforcing Canada's laws and protecting its citizens.

"In the RCMP, survival is success. It's an almost impossible job. The fact that he was able to deal with all of these extraneous issues while continuing to operate, he was very much part of the solution," House said.

In a news release marking Paulson's retirement, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale commended the commissioner for rolling out naloxone kits for officers exposed to fentanyl, launching a mental health strategy and helping settle a class action sexual harassment lawsuit.

Addressing sexual harassment

Soon after Paulson's appointment, more women came forward with their stories about how they'd been sexually harassed and abused while working for the RCMP.

Paulson ordered a gender-based audit to understand the barriers female officers faced, and Workman-Stark was tasked with leading an action plan.

"I believe he genuinely wanted to improve the workplace. He's done a lot to promote women, to put them in senior positions," she said.

But when it comes to workplace harassment, Workman-Stark believes the force made a strategic mistake.

"I don't know if we ever accepted organizational responsibility for accepting and tolerating certain types of behaviours. We focused on the symptom of harassment by tightening harassment policies and addressing the 'rotten apples,'" she said.

Tackling those issues early and head-on, Workman-Stark said, could have made a huge difference.

In March 2012 a group of women banded together to file a class action lawsuit alleging widespread sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse. Before long, hundreds of women had joined.

Paulson wipes his eyes after hugging lead plaintiff Janet Merlo when a $100-million settlement over sexual harassment and misconduct was announced in Ottawa last October. (CBC)

In October 2016, under pressure from the federal government to settle, the RCMP offered the women $100 million in compensation and an apology.

"To all the women who have been impacted by the force's failure to have protected your experience at work, and on behalf of every leader, supervisor or manager, every commissioner, I stand humbly before you today and solemnly offer our sincere apology," Paulson said at the news conference.

What many pointed out, though, was the RCMP never explicitly admitted any wrongdoing.

Questions of oversight

In a 2012 interview with CBC News, Paulson said he didn't support the idea of a civilian board of management for the RCMP, saying he didn't think it was necessary.

The idea had been the main pillar of a 2007 report on cultural change at the RCMP, commissioned by the federal government.

Calling the culture "horribly broken," Toronto lawyer David Brown said the Mounties needed civilians to help run a multibillion-dollar agency.

In May, 10 years after the Brown report, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commissioner weighed in.

"The RCMP will not be able to bring about the necessary change required to address its dysfunctional culture on its own," wrote Ian McPhail. "A change in governance is required, and such change must come from the outside."

While other police agencies employ civilian experts in non-operational roles, the RCMP assigns senior uniformed officers to manage human resources and information technology. Even the chief audit and evaluation executive is a Mountie.

On occasion, some of those capability gaps become public.

In May, Auditor General Michael Ferguson issued a report critical of the RCMP's mental health strategy.

While recognizing the RCMP was the first department to introduce such a plan, Ferguson said it was poorly funded and only partially implemented, and no one appeared to be measuring results.

Appearing before the House of Commons public accounts committee on May 31, Ferguson told MPs how the RCMP "would not sign off on the findings as factually based" due to a disagreement over his office's approach in reporting statistics.

"That's not to say we disagree with the findings," the commissioner explained to the committee.

"We disagree with the manner in which some of the data was used to produce those findings or produce those recommendations."

MPs didn't want to hear it. They grilled Paulson until he grew defensive.

"It's being seen as a sort of condemnation — again — of another thing we haven't gotten right. That is difficult for me," he said.

"I don't want credit; I want dignity. I want some dignity," Paulson said as the hearing wrapped up.

Yellow stripes protest

Earlier this year Mounties started pulling the yellow stripes off their uniform pants.

Many explained it was the only way they could express their frustration with working conditions, stagnant pay, changes to their health and dental benefits and other areas of contention.

This year, Mounties upset with issues such as working conditions, pay, and new health and dental benefits removed the yellow stripes from their pants. Halifax Staff Sgt. Lisa Stuart turned hers into lapel ribbons. (Lisa Stuart)

But despite winning the right to unionize in a Supreme Court decision in January 2015, Mounties have less representation today. In early 2016, Paulson scrapped the staff relations representative program, saying it was not permitted in light of the court decision.

"You can't run things from behind a desk. No one was listening to what the front lines were concerned about. This was the impression of people at national headquarters," said Workman-Stark.

Paulson's final weeks as commissioner were tough.

Four separate reports took the RCMP to task for persistent workplace harassment problems, a deficient mental health strategy and being too secretive.

And then there was the Moncton trial.

The commissioner's surprise appearance came after weeks of emotional testimony from his own officers, who said they had not been adequately armed or trained for what happened.

The commissioner insisted they had.

About the Author

Alison Crawford

Politics

Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.