ANALYSIS | Back to catching bad guys!

There's no way around it: the four years the Mounties endured under outside management went badly — and, now, that time is over.

A new RCMP Commissioner deftly turns the page

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson watches the parade march past as he takes part in a change of command ceremony welcoming him as the 23rd commissioner in Ottawa on Dec. 8, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

There's no way around it: the four years the Mounties endured under outside management went badly — and, now, that time is over. The RCMP's first civilian Commissioner, William Elliott, survived an open revolt among senior officers but is now history nonetheless. It's never good when the boss of a fabled national institution has to publicly admit to anger-management issues.

Of course, Elliott is not personally responsible for the problems that have undermined the Mounties' reputation. Botched cases, deadly taserings, low morale and rampant sexual harassment will do that all on their own. Elliott merely proved unable to restore the bruised reputation of the legendary force.

So — can the officers' officer, Bob Paulson, fix it? Not overnight — but he's out of the gate fast.

Moments after he spoke, Catherine Galliford, the B.C. Mountie who recently scalded the force with tales of constant and even vicious sexual harassment, declared that Paulson was "on the right track" in addressing the problem. He swears to deliver swift and certain suspensions for what he calls "outrageous" conduct. Senior officers will be authorised to punish offenders without delay.

But Paulson won't be judged by that alone. He'll be judged, he says, by his "core business" — meaning, "which crook we've caught lately."

Doesn't sound too inspiring? It does if you're a cop. In fact, it's exactly what resonates with the rank and file. And what a contrast there was between Elliott's remarks and Paulson's as the former handed the baton to the latter.

Elliott, true to form, couldn't resist one last shot at his rivals in the internal, bureaucratic war that came to dominate his tenure. He called his critics "biased and misinformed." It only served to remind everyone of what a difficult time his tenure was — and it can hardly have won over those "biased" critics, many of whom were within his own ranks. Is that what the Mounties are about — a constant battle with critics?

Not anymore, they hope. The whole handover ceremony was choreographed to remind us of the Mounties' history, traditions and symbols: lots of marching, saluting, shiny boots and bagpipes. It's a military organisation, we were told — a "corps" — and its officers are "troops." They marched left, right and round in circles. And troopers they were — giving a just-hearty-enough three cheers to the departing Elliott when ordered to do so. It's a tradition, like it or not.

But you could almost hear the relief when the Commissioner's baton — sorry, "tipstaff" — was symbolically passed from a civilian to a professional cop. And the new Commissioner immediately delivered the remarks his "troops" wanted to hear: no oratory, no poetry, no shots at critics and no fancy promises of a new dawn. Instead, Paulson cited a few recent, everyday examples of the bad guys the Mounties have caught. That, he said, "is the RCMP that I joined. And that is the RCMP that I want to deliver to Canadians." Then, he sat down.

The ranks of bussed-in, red-serged Mounties ate it up. They fairly bounced out of there in their gleaming boots. "A good day!" beamed one bandsman as he stepped into the drab, grey Ottawa air. Only one more ritual remained: the Commissioner's media scrum.

Of course, that could easily have ruined everything. If just one rude question got under the Commissioner's skin, or if he started blasting critics and pretending all was well, the happy day could have turned sour. Or the Mounties' own bureaucracy could have messed it up by having some "communications director" butting in and ordering reporters to ask no more questions. It happens all the time when you're a mere cabinet minister.

Instead, we ran out of questions. Paulson fielded them all, declared the problems real, said how he hoped to deal with them and never claimed the critics were wrong. Too much fat at headquarters? Yes, "our headquarters is too big … there's ample room in the back office for efficiences." Killing the gun registry? Not going to talk about it. He's a cop — and what he would talk about was his "core business." His definition of that made up in pithiness for what it lacked in poetry.

"We do our best work when we stay in our lane and do what we have to do," he declared. "All Canadians want to hear from us is which crook we've caught lately and how safer it is for them today."

Soaring oratory it's not — and maybe short of perfection, grammar-wise. But it will be hard to find anyone, in the ranks or outside them, to disagree with that back-to-basics vision of the RCMP's road back to public esteem.

So the bandsman's verdict sounds about right: it was, indeed, "a good day" for the Mounties — and they can use one.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.