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The RCMP at the crossroads

As the storied police service turns 150, some communities are wondering if it’s time to pull the plug on the Mounties

Allison Cake/CBC

A fleet of vehicles for the fledgling Surrey Police Service gathers dust in a windowless room in a hidden warehouse.

Parked side by side, the vehicles are all emblazoned with the SPS motto — Safer. Stronger. Together — and outfitted to hit the streets of the British Columbia city.

They just can’t respond to any calls yet. For now, they — along with the fate of Canada’s newest police force — remain in the dark.

“So we’re in this dilemma,” said Chief Constable Norm Lipinski, head of the Surrey Police.

“I strongly believe we will be here to stay, but we do have some challenges and people obviously are concerned about the uncertainty.”

That uncertainty is wrapped up in a battle between the city and the province.

One of the Surrey Police Service cars. (Sarah Sears/CBC)

At the request of the former mayor, Lipinski was tasked with replacing the RCMP in Surrey, the province’s fastest growing city, and building a new police force from the ground up.

But a new pro-RCMP mayor was elected last fall, putting the SPS and its hundreds of officers in limbo. The provincial government reviewed the situation and recommended sticking with the Surrey Police Service — it even offered to throw in funding.

But Mayor Brenda Locke is undeterred.

Chief Lipinski, Surrey Police. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

“We have a choice and we pick the RCMP,” she told a press conference last month.

“I haven’t seen anything that would change our mind.”

So for now, the officers Lipinski has helped to recruit and train as SPS officers show up to work in their SPS uniforms to take out RCMP vehicles.

“Somebody’s going to be in charge,” he said. “So one police of jurisdiction, and that’s the RCMP. So they are in charge and we work for them, if you will.”

A symbol under stress

Surrey is just one of the communities questioning the value of their RCMP policing contracts as the Mounties celebrate 150 years of service today.

From Grande Prairie in western Alberta to rural counties on the coast of Nova Scotia, conversations about shedding the red serge are multiplying.

After years of tragedy, mismanagement and scandal, the very core of the RCMP’s mandate is under review — putting unprecedented pressure on an institution that is as much a symbol of Canada as it is a police service.

“I think those discussions are healthy,” said RCMP Deputy Commissioner Dwayne McDonald, the top Mountie in British Columbia.

“I think we as an organization need to learn from and evolve as a result of those decisions to make ourselves better.”

Deputy Commissioner Dwayne McDonald ( Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The RCMP has gone through many changes since its start back on May 23, 1873, when it was called the North West Mounted Police. It changed its name to the RCMP and took on more federal responsibilities after the first World War, absorbing the Dominion Police.

These days, the RCMP polices the North and still serves as the provincial police service under contract in most provinces, with the notable exceptions of Ontario and Quebec. It’s also the police force for about 150 municipalities.

The RCMP is also still responsible for federal policing — investigating complex national and international crimes such as foreign interference, money laundering and cyber hacking.

It’s a massive mandate spanning everything from traffic tickets to terrorist attacks.

“I do believe it’s time to have a second look [at the RCMP’s mandate],” said Lipinski.

“The question is, can an organization do everything? Can they do federal policing, national security and then do boots-on-the-ground policing? And that’s where the various municipal leaders have to make that decision and explore those options.”

N.S. mass shooting leads to questions about RCMP model

The recent inquiry into the mass shooting in Nova Scotia, which left 22 people dead in the spring of 2020, exposed cracks in the way Mounties do frontline policing.

The problems identified in the 3,000-page final report — a lack of staffing, a lack of local knowledge, a lack of preparation, a lack of leadership — strike at the heart of what communities and provincial governments hire the force to do.

“The future of the RCMP and of provincial policing requires focused re-evaluation,” says the report, which was released in March.

One of the report’s key recommendations calls on the federal public safety minister to commission an independent review of the RCMP and to work with contract partners, such as the province of Nova Scotia, on examining the force’s approach to contract policing.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino says he’s committed to reviewing the force

“How it looks going forward, will very much be a function of the ongoing conversations that we’re having with provinces, territories, and municipalities,” he said.

“Whatever path [communities] choose, we will be there to support them. And that is an approach that we will take right across the country.”

McDonald said the RCMP’s source of strength is its national scope. He said the choice facing the Mounties should not be an “either-or” between contract policing and federal policing.

“The knowledge, skills and expertise that we are able to bring to any one public safety issue, whether small in a rural area or internationally, I think that’s something that we shouldn’t shy away from, but that we should celebrate.”

Lipinksi said the breadth of the RCMP’s mandate is part of its problem — that the institution is too slow to change tactics or respond to community concerns.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, sits in the crowd with Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino, left, during the delivery of the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry's final report into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia in Truro, N.S. on Thursday, March 30, 2023. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

“Part of the local accountability for us here in B.C is the oversight of conduct of police officers. To me, that’s transparency. To me, that’s accountability,” he said.

He said his service could, for example, be wearing body-worn cameras by now. While the RCMP promised to bring them in back in 2020, it only began field-testing last week and is still months away from a national rollout.

While Brian Sauvé, head of the RCMP union, agrees procurement can be a slog, he said contract policing is worth the cost.

“I think everybody comes from the narrative that contract policing is not worthwhile, and I like to look at it from the reverse. Let’s talk about it from the positive,” he said.

“Go do a ride-along, go visit a detachment … Whether we’re talking about fires, floods, emergency evacuations, occupations, protests, the ability for the RCMP or a provincial police service to deploy in massive numbers to an emerging event is something that can’t be overlooked.”

‘It’s still not a safe place’

Karen Adams says there’s another good reason for communities to think about dropping the RCMP as their local police service: decades of bad behaviour.

“I think the organization has become too large, too cumbersome to deal with all the situations it’s dealing with,” she said.

Adams is a pivotal figure in the recent history of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. She was one of the first women ever to serve as a Mountie. She also helped to blow the whistle on one of its biggest scandals.

Karen Adams served with the RCMP for nearly three decades. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Adams was among more than 2,300 women who took part in a historic class action lawsuit against the RCMP for sexual harassment and abuse.

“Some Canadians will sit back and say, ‘Do you have much to celebrate?’” she said reflecting on the RCMP’s 150th anniversary.

“I still believe that women are being harassed in the [RCMP] workplace. That it’s still not a safe place, that they’re still not opening their doors to a representation of what it is to be Canadian, and even those that are that do come in, I think I have a hard time staying.”

Too big to succeed?

According to Adams, the RCMP can only reform itself if it becomes smaller and more focused — and that means getting out of contract policing.

“I think the organization has become too large, too cumbersome to deal with all the situations it’s dealing with,” she said.

“In order for the RCMP to continue to exist, I totally believe that provinces and municipalities will have to have their own policing. And that the RCMP will be a federal policing agency, very similar to the FBI.”

Women were allowed to join the RCMP in 1974 but had to wear a different uniform. (Submitted by Karen Adams)

Since 2016, the federal government has paid out $125,266,500 to the claimants in the Merlo-Davidson settlement, named after lawsuit plaintiffs Janet Merlo and Linda Davidson. The settlement covered those who were sexually harassed while working for the RCMP during or after September 1974.

Tasked with investigating the RCMP’s culture in the wake of that settlement, former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache released a report in 2020 saying the RCMP “tolerates misogynistic, racist and homophobic attitudes.”

Bastarache’s report joins a shelf filled with other reports, written by other former judges who took a run at the RCMP’s culture and structure.

Eli Sopow, a former RCMP civilian employee, has seen those reports and recommendations come and go. He spent two decades inside the force, including a turn as the RCMP’s director of “change management.”

“You know, the commission on mass casualties was a big one, but there’s been so many commissions and look at it, it’s just not going anywhere,” he said.

“The culture hasn’t changed. The structure, of course, hasn’t changed. The systems haven’t changed. When you talk about change and we talk about a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose, well, it seems to have no sense of urgency at the political level.”

McDonald said the force is owning up to its mistakes. He pointed to the RCMP setting up a new reform and modernization directorate this month that will, among other things, look at the recommendations of the Mass Casualty Commission.

“We’ve taken our hits, I would say, in certain respects, but I think the RCMP is showing a willingness to learn from that,” he said.

“I think in fairness, maybe we don’t always get a fair shake, so to speak, [on] how willing we are to change.”

Costly decision

As Surrey is learning, the debate isn’t just about whether to keep the Mounties. It’s about money as well.

The provinces and territories pay the bulk of municipalities’ policing contracts — about 70 per cent — while the federal government covers the rest.

The cost of municipal RCMP contracts is based on a number of different cost-sharing scenarios linked to a community’s size and the date it first signed a policing agreement with the RCMP.

McDonald said the way to improve the RCMP’s relationship with the communities it serves isn’t to terminate the contracts but rather to give communities more freedom to tinker with their terms.

“I think there needs to be even greater flexibility, when we talk about governance and accountability structures, that can be utilized by the community to ensure that their needs are being met,” he said.

“I think if we put our focus on there, we can continue to serve Canadians across the spectrum with exceptional levels of policing.”

Whatever the future holds for the RCMP after 150 years of service, its role in keeping Canada safe is likely to change.

When asked if the RCMP is the right fit for every community it currently serves, Sauvé paused before answering.

“I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know,” he said.

The union head said he welcomes the police reviews that are popping up across the country.

“That’s an opportunity for us to bring forward the excellent work that gets done day in, day out by every member across the country.

“Is there a community out there that might do some form of review and come to a different conclusion? Possibly.”

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