Opposition parties denounce government ousting of N.B.'s top RCMP officer
Move is in line with premier's pattern of pushing out top officials, says Liberal leader
Two opposition parties are denouncing the Higgs government's unprecedented move to force the replacement of the top RCMP officer in the province, saying it amounts to political interference in policing.
But a top expert says while the move is the first of its kind, it's a welcome step toward greater civilian oversight of police operations.
In July, Public Safety Minister Ted Flemming used Article 7.4 of the province's policing agreement with the RCMP to ask for the immediate replacement of Assistant Commissioner Larry Tremblay of J Division.
The RCMP says Tremblay will retire from the force at the end of this month.
"It's not normal," said Liberal Leader Roger Melanson. "I don't think we've seen something like that in New Brunswick."
He said it's in keeping with Premier Blaine Higgs's pattern of pushing out top officials who disagree with his agenda.
"It's 'my way or the highway,' and if you don't agree with how we go about it, you're gone," Melanson said.
He said another example was the resignation of N.B. Liquor CEO Patrick Parent last December after just 16 months on the job. No explanation was given at the time.
Green MLA Kevin Arseneau called Flemming's decision to invoke the policing contract "extremely surprising" and said it was at odds with the minister's usual rhetoric about the justice system.
"Flemming's the one who gets up in the house all the time and says he can't interfere," he said.
But Christian Leuprecht, an expert in public safety and policing at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., says while the decision is a surprise, it may be a positive development.
"That's a pretty stunning development. I can't think of another instance in Canada when a provincial government asked for the removal of an assistant commissioner," he said.
Leuprecht said that's because the eight provinces that lack provincial police forces and use the RCMP "have not taken a particularly hands-on approach," and this could be a break from that pattern.
"We can see here that New Brunswick is trying to set a trend, that if we're going to pay for contract policing, the police force is ultimately responsible in a democracy to a civilian political authority, that being the provincial government."
He said that kind of political oversight is "pretty bread-and-butter" for municipal police forces that report to an elected council or a local commission appointed by elected officials.
Flemming said Tuesday he was looking for an assistant commissioner that would act more aggressively against illegal drugs and drug crimes.
"The province has put a lot of money into government action on illegal drugs," he said. "We want to declare war on these people."
But the minister provided no data supporting his claim that Tremblay had not been active enough.
And the RCMP itself said it is on track to meet or exceed its provincial performance targets on drug enforcement.
That may be, Leuprecht said, but even if that's the case, it's still appropriate for an elected government to decide if the head cop is delivering on their priorities.
"We live in a democracy and ultimately it needs to be up to the citizens through their elected representatives to decide on police operations. It is not up to police to decide on the strategic nature of those operations."
Province 'not in the Reagan era:' MLA
Melanson and Arseneau both say that aggressive police action is not the best way to tackle drugs and addiction.
"You can do it through Public Safety but a lot of experts are saying it should be a Public Health issue," Melanson said. "People can debate that for a long time, but the reality is Public Safety is not the only approach to address illegal drug trafficking."
In fact, the $2.3 million in additional funding to the RCMP this year for drug enforcement was just one part of a five-year addiction and mental health plan that also includes new treatment services.
But Arseneau said Flemming's comments this week about declaring war on drug traffickers shows an old-fashioned mindset.
"The RCMP is trying to use an approach that is more holistic than the hard line," he said.
"Flemming has to realize that we're not in the Reagan era with the 'war on drugs.' "