RCMP police HQ investigation doesn't preclude a public inquiry into Winnipeg scandals

Mayor's call for an inquiry has nothing to do with criminal investigations and everything to do with shining a light on what happened in Winnipeg's past.

Bowman says he wants to restore faith in city hall, but that requires answers RCMP can't provide

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, with CAO Doug McNeil at left, said he plans to ask the province to call a public inquiry into events that transpired at the city before he was elected. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Brian Bowman had only been Winnipeg's mayor for six weeks when the RCMP launched a criminal investigation into the city's police headquarters.

"We've inherited this nonsense," a shaken Bowman said in December 2014, after the Mounties raided the McGillivray Boulevard offices of police HQ contractor Caspian Construction.

Bowman ran for mayor that year on a platform of changing the culture of a city hall that was still reeling from two years of capital-procurement and real-estate scandals.

But the newly minted mayor's efforts to paint a picture of an open and transparent Winnipeg were undermined by two years of increasingly serious RCMP allegations about the police HQ project, approved two terms before he was elected.

According to RCMP affidavits, what began as a fraud-and-forgery investigation centred on contractor Caspian construction expanded into allegations of secret commissions and breach of trust.

The latest RCMP allegations — that former city chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl provided inside police HQ information to contractor Caspian and then accepted a $200,000 payment — pushed Bowman across a line he has been careful to avoid before.

No more mayoral wait-and-see 

Up until this week, the mayor responded to every query about RCMP allegations with a cautious plea to wait for the Mounties to complete their investigative work.

On Thursday, Bowman abandoned this wait-and-see strategy.​

"We'll be working with legal counsel and my council colleagues on a more thorough review of these allegations and options for council's consideration related to a public inquiry," Bowman said. 

"The terms and the scope that will be requested of the province will be contained in the motion once we've had additional time to consider and draft the motion."

The mayor's motion to ask Premier Brian Pallister's provincial government to launch a public inquiry is expected at an upcoming executive policy committee meeting and due before council on Feb. 22.

The province has already poured cold water on this idea, claiming it would be premature to presume the outcome of an RCMP investigation.

No charges have been laid to date and none of the allegations against Sheegl — or anyone else, for that matter — have been proven in court.

The construction of Winnipeg's police headquarters has been under RCMP investigation since 2014. (CBC News )
Nonetheless, the Pallister government is sidestepping the stated intent of the mayor's call for a public inquiry. In short, Bowman's idea has nothing to do with additional criminal investigations and everything to do with shining a light on what happened in the past in the hopes of ensuring the city can learn from its mistakes and move on.

"The ultimate objective is to restore trust and faith in city hall," Bowman said.

Inquiry could examine more than HQ

During the final years of former mayor Sam Katz's tenure at city hall, Winnipeg struggled with a series of revelations about due process getting ignored in the pursuit of property transactions and capital project procurement.

A trio of city-commissioned audits examined the construction of four new fire-paramedic stations, 33 major city real-estate transactions and the renovation of the former Canada Post complex into a new police headquarters.

Despite all this paper, current and former city officials — both appointed and elected — were not compelled to address what went wrong.

As well, no officials were ever held to account for the fire-paramedic construction scandal, the police headquarters project or any of the problematic real estate transactions.

While the RCMP investigations focus narrowly on criminal charges, an inquiry could illuminate precisely what transpired at the City of Winnipeg by compelling officials to testify in public, potentially in exchange for immunity.

Right now, Winnipeggers have no idea why the city purchased of the former Canada Post complex for $29.25 million without appraising the aging structure or conducting a full examination of its defects.

The Public Safety Building has sat empty, across from city hall, since the Winnipeg Police Service moved into its new headquarters on Graham Avenue in June 2016. (Bartley Kives/CBC)
Winnipeggers have no idea why this course of action was pursued when an external study determined it would cost roughly the same amount of money to renovate the police's existing Public Safety Building and expand it over the footprint of the Civic Centre Parkade.

Winnipeggers have no idea why the Winnipeg Police Service only interviewed one of two whistleblowers who came forward with police headquarters allegations and did not appear to act on what was learned from the single witness police did interview.

A criminal investigation likely would not reveal answers to these questions, while a public inquiry could close the book on the police HQ scandal and more.

The land swap and beyond

For example, Winnipeggers have no idea why the city engaged in the Parker land swap without conducting full appraisals of the unserviced land it transferred to developer Andrew Marquess or the serviced land it acquired for Winnipeg Transit.

Winnipeggers have no idea why the fire-paramedic station construction program was broken up into smaller contracts, eliminating the need for council approval.

Winnipeggers have no idea why the city administration failed to disclose a $10-million valuation of the downtown surface lot known as Parcel Four when it recommended council dispose of the downtown property for $5.9 million.

Winnipeggers have no idea why information about the former Canad Inns Stadium site was disclosed to a potential buyer before the property was put up for sale.

Again, a criminal investigation will not answer these questions, but a public inquiry could.

Justice Minister Heather Stefanson has so far expressed little interest in a public inquiry. (CBC)
Justice Minister Heather Stefanson did not address this when she stated the RCMP must wrap up its police HQ investigation before any public inquiry into Winnipeg's scandals could be held.

The Mounties have had the real estate and fire-paramedic station audits in their hands since August 2014. There is no indication they will ever engage in criminal investigations relating to either of those files.

But the serious nature of the latest police headquarters allegations makes it reasonable for the mayor to desire a public spotlight on the other city scandals as well as other, non-criminal aspects of the police HQ projects.

It will be a few weeks before Bowman reveals what a public inquiry would examine. At that point, it will be incumbent on the province to either give the idea more serious consideration or explain why it isn't interested in learning what transpired under the previous city administration.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.