Canada

The RCMP is broken

The iconic force is fraying under the strain of its rural policing model, tragic mistakes, an ugly past and a controversial present

Leon Joudrey shuts his phone off before he goes to bed, so when he awoke in his Portapique, N.S., home early on the morning of April 19, he had no idea that 13 of his neighbours, including some of his closest friends, had been murdered while he slept.

When he awoke at around 3 a.m., Joudrey had texts from friends asking if he was okay. He didn’t understand what had happened, so he decided to jump in his truck and drive around the community for a look. In the darkness, he didn’t realize that some of the houses he drove past were no longer standing, that they had been burned to the ground.

He came across an RCMP vehicle on the road. Through a loudspeaker, the officers directed him to go to the end of the road but did not roll down their windows to talk to him about what was going on. Joudrey instead went home to check on his dogs. The killer was by this time kilometres away in the community of Debert, but the RCMP didn’t know that.

August 2020 cover of Maclean’s

Joudrey would like to know why the officers didn’t talk to him. “They could have saved a lot of troubles in my life if they would have put down their window. Didn’t they wonder who I was and where I came from?”

Joudrey went home, took out his shotgun and sat in his bedroom with his two dogs. At about 6 a.m., the common-law wife of the killer knocked on his door. She was barefoot and distraught. The night before she had been assaulted by the killer and escaped. Joudrey gave her a pair of running shoes and called 911. The RCMP showed up soon after. “They roll in three vehicles, jump out, they come toward my house. They didn’t call me out of the house. I could have shot all of them.”

Joudrey’s dogs, Basil and Yzerman, ran up to the police.

“The guy had his gun right against the back of my dog’s neck, just standing there. He wasn’t paying attention. And these are the Ninja Turtles, the SWAT guys. I said, ‘Get your gun away from my f–king dogs.’ He said, ‘We’re not here for dogs.’ ”

They took the killer’s common-law wife away, but still he says nobody told him what had happened. Only when a friend called did Joudrey learn that his closest friends had been murdered. He is haunted by that, and has had to abandon his home and move away to cope with the stress. “I drove around for two or three hours, the most confusing two or three hours of my life, with all my friends dead and I didn’t know it. Now that I know what happened, it was like driving through a graveyard.”

Joudrey, a forest technician, can’t understand why the RCMP didn’t evacuate the tiny community while the killer was at large. “I fight forest fires. The first thing you do is get people out of their houses. You don’t leave them, see if the fire gets them.” He is unhappy with how the RCMP handled him that night, and upset that no one has followed up with him. “They didn’t do anything right.”

Joudrey, with dogs Yzerman (left) and Basil, wonders why the RCMP didn’t evacuate Portapique (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

Joudrey, with dogs Yzerman (left) and Basil, wonders why the RCMP didn’t evacuate Portapique (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

Relatives of the victims have similar feelings about the RCMP. After the killer left Portapique a smoking ruin, he gave the Mounties the slip and drove on back roads in his replica RCMP cruiser to a welding shop, where he parked for the night. In the morning, dressed in a Mountie uniform, he killed a couple he knew, then four random strangers, including two nurses, Heather O’Brien and Kristen Beaton, who was pregnant.

Her widower, Nick Beaton, like many Nova Scotians, thinks the RCMP should have used the provincial emergency alert system to warn the public. “The RCMP are as responsible for my wife and unborn baby’s death as much as that low-life,” says Beaton. “I can 100 per cent guarantee that with a warning my wife would be alive today. I can promise you that with every existence of my soul. She would not have went out the door.”

O’Brien’s daughter, Darcy Dobson, is furious that it took the Mounties seven hours to notify her family that her mother had passed away. “I pray that they f–king learn something,” she says. “If nothing else, they learn something because they made some horrible, horrible mistakes. I’m trying to tread lightly . . . but they dropped the ball in Nova Scotia.”

READ: Heather O’Brien was murdered in the Nova Scotia shooting. It took the RCMP seven hours to tell her family.

Dobson’s father is one of the people who has proposed a class action lawsuit against the RCMP and the province, saying the authorities failed to “protect the safety and security of the public.” The lawsuit alleges that the RCMP returned a vehicle to one family with gun casings and human remains inside, and that the initial RCMP response was hampered by understaffing.

The Nova Scotia shooting looks like a disaster for the Mounties—a slow-motion wreck that will grind on for a decade as inquiries, investigations and lawsuits move through the courts. It was the beginning of a miserable spring for the force and its new commissioner, Brenda Lucki, the first woman to ever hold the job. Lucki will likely face difficult questions about how the force responded in Nova Scotia for as long as she is in her job. Twenty-two people were killed—including beloved officer Heidi Stevenson—one officer was injured and an unknown number are off with PTSD after sorting through the smoking ruins left by the killer.

While that disaster was still fresh, Lucki had to face a long-overdue racial reckoning, as Black Lives Matter protests in the United States put the focus on police methods on both sides of the border. In the midst of that once-in-a-generation social revolution, Lucki struggled to respond to complaints about systemic racism in the RCMP. Some First Nations leaders called for her resignation, while others called for the abolition of the RCMP. It is a political moment that creates a generational opportunity for politicians who have for decades let the RCMP manage itself rather than insisting on fundamental change.

Throughout, 20,000 officers across the country continued their work, most of them patrolling the back roads, their morale hurting. And while activists in cities called for the defunding of police, in rural areas, where crime rates are higher and response times longer, many worry that there aren’t enough police to keep them safe.

This is the structural problem at the heart of the RCMP, an instantly recognizable symbol of Canada around the world. Its essential work as a federal force is undermined by its obligations as an underfunded rural police force working on contract for provincial and municipal governments. Increasingly, it looks like the Mounties are struggling at both of these competing missions, and are too often a danger to both themselves and the people they are sworn to protect.

***

Since 1885, there has been one place where Mounties are made—a sprawling facility on the outskirts of Regina, the RCMP Academy, which is known within the force as Depot. It was here, in 1885, where the Mounties hanged Métis leader Louis Riel in front of the mess hall, which was later converted to a chapel.

The RCMP’s critics say the intensely hierarchical and change-resistant culture of the force comes from the paramilitary structure, which is drilled into the heads of “cadets” when they spend six months at Depot, where they are formed into “troops,” taught how to march, shoot, and arrest suspects, and learn the traditions of the RCMP.

“The task of the Regina Depot is, without a shadow of a doubt, the inculcation of RCMP values,” says Robert Gordon, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University (SFU). “It’s a standard military practice of taking a group of people and . . . you strip them of all their previous humanity and rebuild them so . . . when the officer blows the whistle, they will go over the lip of the trench. It worked 100 years ago. But policing is far more complicated now and I don’t think the military model is viable anymore.”

A recruit is subdued during training at the RCMP Academy in 1957 (Metro/BIPs/Getty Images)

A recruit is subdued during training at the RCMP Academy in 1957 (Metro/BIPs/Getty Images)

The roots of the system are in the force’s history—the North West Mounted Police—a paramilitary force created to extend eastern power into the plains. Sir John A. Macdonald ordered the force created in 1873, modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary, after American wolf hunters massacred more than 20 Assiniboine people in the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan. And in 1877, the force gave sanctuary to Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, who was fleeing the genocidal U.S. Army.

But the North West Mounted Police was soon involved in military campaigns to repress Indigenous uprisings, both Métis and Cree, helping colonial authorities to force Indigenous people onto reserves, where many starved. It enforced apartheid-style pass laws and helped force Indigenous children into residential schools, where many were abused and an untold number died of preventable diseases exacerbated by malnutrition.

Indigenous leaders say this bitter legacy of genocidal colonialism continues now. Since the RCMP polices much of rural Canada, and also is responsible for national security, Mounties are typically called on to clear blockades and to gather intelligence on Indigenous activists that resource companies consider a threat. They have brought snipers to blockades in British Columbia and New Brunswick, military-style shows of force—“lethal overwatch” in the words of the RCMP—that Indigenous people consider a calculated attempt at intimidation.

This painful history means that community policing carried out by the RCMP in Indigenous communities is hampered by mutual suspicion. Consider the case of Chief Allan Adam, who was knocked to the ground and repeatedly punched by an RCMP officer as he and his wife were trying to drive away from Boomtown Casino in Fort McMurray, Alta., on March 10.

READ: The Nova Scotia shooting encapsulates all that’s wrong with the RCMP

Adam, the chief of nearby Fort Chipewyan, was stopped because of an expired licence plate on his truck, which he had picked up earlier that day from the RCMP, who had impounded it. Adam was upset that the RCMP, which earlier called him to pick up the vehicle, was now stopping him and his wife. He took a confrontational tone, swore at the officer and removed his jacket. Tempers got higher when the officer, for unknown reasons, put his hands on Adam’s wife, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Another officer, Constable Simon Seguin, tackled Adam, knocking him to the ground, and repeatedly punched him, putting him in a chokehold, while Adam complained of police brutality. The Mounties charged him with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer and locked him up overnight.

Senior RCMP officers, after reviewing dash-cam video of the incident, say the officers handled it properly. “It was determined that the members’ actions were reasonable and did not meet the threshold for an external investigation.” When the video became public a month later, most people who saw it did not think the members’ actions were reasonable. It went viral, shaming Canada around the world. Climate activist Greta Thunberg, who had met with Adam, denounced the attack: “I’m shocked by this shameful abuse by the RCMP.”

Chief Adam in his doctor’s office after his March 10 arrest (Courtesy of Ben Parson)

Chief Adam in his doctor’s office after his March 10 arrest (Courtesy of Ben Parson)

When the RCMP dropped charges against Adam in June, it was revealed that while Seguin was working, he was himself awaiting trial on assault charges. His bosses, the same hierarchy that decided there was no problem with the way he handled the arrest of Chief Adam, had approved him to keep working while he faced charges. The RCMP says it is “reviewing” the question of why Seguin’s charges were not publicly disclosed.

In an interview with Maclean’s, Adam says for him the brutality of the arrest was not unusual. “I guess in the ordinary world of First Nations people, this is just a day-to-day arrest by the RCMP.”

Adam is not universally popular in Fort Mac, because he has spoken out about the environmental damage caused by the oil industry and met with activists and celebrities who oppose the oil sands. He is suspicious that the Mounties want to get him for political reasons. “History shows that John A. Macdonald put up the RCMP to go and make way for the settlers and the extraction of the resources,” he says. “Coming from the 1800s, they did that to the Scottish and Irish peoples, and what they did is brought that same tactic to Canada. They used the same tactics to get us away from the land and the RCMP has been imposing systemic racism right from the day they were founded here in Canada. They took action against Louis Riel and it continues to grow. When does Canada say, maybe it’s time to look at the police?”

The RCMP says the incident started as a routine traffic stop and has referred it to the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team for an independent investigation. “The employees of the Alberta RCMP have built positive relationships with Indigenous and visible minority communities across the province and we continue working to make those relationships better,” says Fraser Logan, Alberta RCMP media relations manager. “While we understand that at the moment this relationship is strained, earning the trust and confidence of Indigenous communities in Alberta remains a top priority for us.”

Alvin Fiddler, grand chief of the vast Nishnawbe Aski Nation in northern Ontario, called Chief Adam after the incident to check in on him. Fiddler, who helped build an Indigenous police force that polices 35 communities with 160 officers, went across the country listening to witnesses of abuse at residential schools with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He says a common theme was bad feelings about the RCMP. “And it goes way back, you know, to the Indian residential school system. They were the ones that came and snatched the children away from their parents’ arms, from their communities. Many of them are now in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even now they’re still pretty traumatized, whenever they see an RCMP officer, because they remember they were the ones that came to get them away from their families.”

READ: The RCMP’s step-by-step account of what happened in Nova Scotia (full transcript)

After the video of the Adam beating came to light, the Alberta deputy commissioner denied systemic racism within the RCMP, and then Commissioner Lucki said she was “struggling” with the question. Under political pressure, she later acknowledged that it exists. Within hours after she reversed herself on the question, Rodney Levi, a New Brunswick Mi’kmaq, was shot to death by RCMP officers.

Lucki appears to still be struggling with the concept. At a meeting of the Commons public safety committee on June 23, Gatineau MP Greg Fergus, a Liberal, asked her for an example of systemic racism in the RCMP. She discussed a fitness test that is difficult for people under six feet. “That would be systemic discrimination, but I’m trying to think of systemic racism,” said Fergus.

She could have mentioned that, according to an analysis of crime statistics by CTV, Indigenous people are 10 times more likely to be shot by RCMP.

Fiddler was disappointed with Lucki’s response. “Her first instinct was deny, deny, deny, then wobbling for a couple of days, ‘Maybe there is systemic racism.’ You know what? As a leader, you know, whenever you’re asked a tough question, your first response, that’s your response.”

Lucki declined an interview request for this story.

***

It has been a tough spring for the RCMP, which followed a tough winter, a tough year, a tough decade. The force seems to reel from crisis to crisis, repeatedly studied, analyzed, audited, sued, charged, convicted, found wanting by anyone asked to sit in judgment of its sprawling community policing empire.

And everyone—even the most faithful retired staff sergeants, whose identities are so closely tied to the red serge and the stetson that they bridle at any criticism—thinks the force has allowed community policing, the relentless demand for bodies in detachments, to drain the organization of the resources it needs to address its core function: federal policing.

The RCMP is responsible for human trafficking, drugs, national security, organized crime and money laundering. Enforcing those laws is demanding, technical work and not a good fit for the many officers who are promoted after spending a few years in the sticks.

One former Mountie who worked on specialized money-laundering and national security investigations, who could not use his name because of concern for his current employment, says he often worked with officers who were not equipped to handle the demands of the job. “We’d get guys . . . who came out of the north, who just spent two years in one of the communities, and they were suddenly in the drug section or the market enforcement team or something, but [with] no particular skills to work in those settings.”

Officers without the background for the work would try to avoid it, he says. “If you’re writing a wiretap warrant, you get a [person] with a Grade 12 education, they’re probably not equipped to do that level of writing. And so they’re going to try not to do it. They’re just going to do whatever they can to get out of doing it.”

Canada is widely seen as a safe haven for money launderers, both because of legal loopholes and because the RCMP is not willing or able to put the resources into the demanding and technical investigations necessary to track and seize dirty money. In testimony at the Cullen Commission into money laundering in British Columbia this spring, police witnesses testified that they don’t have trained people doing the necessary work to stop criminals from washing their money in that province, where it is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Lucki on Parliament Hill in April; the force is facing questions about systemic racism in the RCMP (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Lucki on Parliament Hill in April; the force is facing questions about systemic racism in the RCMP (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

In committee on June 23, Liberal Brampton MP Kamal Khera asked Lucki about calls to remove contract policing from the RCMP’s mandate and to rename the force. “Under our modernization efforts, like I said, no stone will be left unturned,” said Lucki. “And one of them is a review of contract policing, but I have to say, having now been in this position, and being exposed to police agencies from around the world, our model, as much as it’s sometimes criticized, is the envy of most police agencies because of its flexibility and nimbleness in times of crisis.”

Experts do not agree.

“The people who get shortchanged on this is actually the federal government, because its federal police force spends most of its time, effort, energy and resources on contract policing, and what I might call distractions from federal priorities,” says Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College (RMC) of Canada, who wrote an in-depth report on the Mounties for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

The model—with the federal government subsidizing the force in rural areas while municipal forces police the cities—means that the RCMP is stuck doing the policing nobody else wants, driving officers into the ground.

In Ontario and Quebec, where provincial forces are under the same regulatory umbrella as municipal forces, they train and work together more easily than the RCMP works with municipal forces.

While the Portapique shooting was under way, for example, the RCMP called in officers from Moncton, two hours away, rather than asking for help from the police in Truro, 30 minutes away. The officers did not know the area. Call logs released under access-to-information law by the Truro Police Department show that one RCMP officer had to ask if there was a hospital in Truro. A Truro officer had to give directions to an out-of-town Mountie who was having a hard time finding the local RCMP building.

A review of the Robert Pickton murders blamed, among other things, the division between the RCMP and the Vancouver police, which meant Pickton was picking up his victims in one jurisdiction and killing them in another.

In Surrey, B.C., the mayor has a mandate to get rid of the RCMP and start a municipal force, but the RCMP, which is about to lose its most urban jurisdiction, is fighting back, with former Mounties leading the charge. In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney is considering starting a provincial force.

If the politicians do not stop them, the RCMP and its allies—including the union and retired RCMP officers—are likely to fight tooth and nail to hang onto Surrey rather than let it go and use the opportunity to beef up understaffed detachments across the country.

***

Tom Taggart is the municipal councillor for District 10 of Colchester County, the sparsely populated rural area west of Truro, including the quiet seaside village of Portapique. His constituents rely on an RCMP detachment in Bible Hill, a 40-minute drive from Portapique.

Taggart was already raising questions about the adequacy of the policing service in his community before the mass shooting. After the shooting, he asked the RCMP to brief him on whether there were six officers on that night, as there are supposed to be, or whether there were four. The RCMP answered the question, but he is not permitted to share the answer with the public because the RCMP will only share with municipal officials on condition that they keep it secret.

“There surely was not a full complement of officers on duty and able to respond that night,” he says in an interview. “There were minimums that they are permitted. I can’t say whether they were there or not.”

Taggart thinks the Truro Police Department might provide better service for his area. “Most of my concerns prior to April 18 were around value for money. That’s not the case anymore. I want a service review. I want to understand. And we deserve, if we pay for six officers a shift, that we get six officers a shift.”

The problem for Colchester County, Taggart says, is that even if he convinced council to increase its tax rate to add several officers, to allow for more regular patrols on the back roads, the county can’t be sure they would get them. “The issue is that the RCMP cannot—I am absolutely certain in my mind—they cannot provide that service, because they’ll be stealing people from somewhere else.”

Taggart was raising questions about policing in his Nova Scotia community before the shooting (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

Taggart was raising questions about policing in his Nova Scotia community before the shooting (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

Taggart calls this “musical badges,” where the RCMP move Mounties around to backfill vacancies in detachments, robbing Peter to pay Paul. “When the whistle blows, what badge is in what chair?” Insiders have long complained that the force will list names on detachment rosters of officers who are off on medical leave, serving on peacekeeping missions overseas or backfilling in other detachments. The result: on paper the force is at full strength, but in reality, rural detachments are chronically understaffed, which means the officers on the ground are overworked. Darryl Davies, a criminologist at Carleton University, says when he used to work in the law-enforcement directorate of the federal Public Safety department, they called it “Mountie math.”

“When I said, well, what’s Mountie math? They said, well, Mountie math is the RCMP. They never tell us how many officers they have in any location at any given time. So I say, well, why? They say for security reasons? Bulls–t.”

Even when detachments are at full strength, the RCMP relies on fewer officers per person than municipal forces. A 2018 Globe and Mail investigation found that in suburban Vancouver, the most urban part of Canada that the RCMP still polices, some detachments relied on one officer for every 956 residents, while the Vancouver Police Department has one officer for every 494 residents. That means individual Mounties carry heavier caseloads and are more likely to patrol alone in a squad car, which is especially dangerous in rural areas where backup is far away. An officer in Great Village, next to Portapique, is recovering from serious injuries after he was assaulted in June by a distraught man.

An internal Public Safety memo obtained by access-to-information law by the Canadian Press found “growing dissatisfaction” with contract policing from other levels of government. “Public Safety Canada and the RCMP have confirmed there are systemic sustainability challenges impacting the whole of the RCMP,” the memo said.

To encourage municipalities and provinces to use the RCMP, the federal government subsidizes the force by 10 to 30 per cent, at a cost of $750 million a year. For cash-strapped local governments, that is too good an offer to turn down; 153 municipalities have contracts with the RCMP, as do three territories and all the provinces but Ontario and Quebec. But it is about to get more expensive. In 2019, the National Police Federation won the right to unionize 20,000 officers and reservists, and members voted 97 per cent in favour of certifying. They are seeking improvements to pay, higher staffing levels and better equipment and training.

RCMP pay and training, once the envy of other police forces, have lagged for decades. A starting constable makes just $53,000. In Vancouver, where RCMP officers and municipal police regularly cross paths, Vancouver constables out-earned their Mountie counterparts by $14,000 a year in 2019. A 2015 RCMP pay study found that RCMP officers in isolated fly-in communities received a $14,524 hardship allowance, compared with $21,502 for members of the Sûreté du Québec and $32,000 for Ontario Provincial Police.

Much of rural Canada is policed by overworked, underpaid RCMP officers. They are also not always as well-equipped as their counterparts in other forces. In 2005, four “heavily outgunned” RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alta., were murdered at a remote farm. The force was told to get rifles for officers, but in 2014, when a Moncton, N.B., man started shooting Mounties, killing three, officers were forced to respond with pistols. “You’ve heard of bringing a knife to a gunfight,” one Mountie told Global News. “Here we are bringing a hand pistol to a rifle fight.”

Davies, the Carleton criminologist, was hired to help the Mounties buy new rifles. He says when Bob Paulson was appointed commissioner, he was skeptical about the plan, out of a fear of militarizing the force. Davies was chilled by how quickly other senior Mounties changed their view to align with the boss’s position. He has since become a persistent critic of the RCMP, pointing to a management culture that is excessively secretive and authoritarian. “The politics of the RCMP is a major problem when it comes to trying to decipher and understand what’s happening in places like Mayerthorpe, Moncton, Portapique and so on because of the secret, subterranean nature of this organization.”

Video stills show the shooter at Brink’s making a $475,000 withdrawal on March 30

Video stills show the shooter at Brink’s making a $475,000 withdrawal on March 30

Months after the Portapique rampage, the RCMP has yet to answer many questions about the killer, the RCMP’s failure to act on previous complaints about him and the fact that for 13 hours, he was able to travel around the province while the RCMP looked for him in the wrong places. The force has declined to answer repeated questions from Maclean’s about a $475,000 withdrawal that the killer made from a Brink’s cash depository, which experts say has the hallmarks of a payment to an informant, something the RCMP denies. In interviews with the Toronto Star and the CBC, the RCMP denied having a “special relationship” with the shooter, but did not explain the source of the funds.

The RCMP points to an ongoing investigation into the source of the killer’s guns as the reason why it won’t reveal more information about the killing. It is unlikely that we will learn more unless there is a public inquiry, which is in the hands of the attorney general of Nova Scotia, Mark Furey. Furey, a former RCMP staff sergeant, has yet to act.

***

The management problems that left Moncton Mounties with handguns bravely running at a shooter with an assault rifle is no one-off. Senior officers have repeatedly been found to have mismanaged other vital issues, often at great expense. A 2019 investigation by Global News found that “$220 million has been spent in the last 20 years on everything from sexual harassment lawsuits to human rights complaints and federal inquiries into nepotism, workplace bullying and turf wars with other police agencies.” A few months after Global’s investigation, the force paid out another $100 million to settle a sexual harassment class action suit.

The force has a long history of denying wrongdoing, aggressively rebutting and smearing whistleblowers, before being forced into humiliating reversals in court. When Cpl. Catherine Galliford, a high-profile British Columbia spokesperson for the force, sued after being subjected to sexual harassment by several officers over two decades, to the point that she developed post-traumatic stress disorder, the RCMP responded by filing a statement of defence alleging she was an alcoholic. RCMP lawyers forced her to go through 11 discovery sessions, quizzing her about her sex life and other personal matters. It ultimately settled with thousands of female Mounties and civilian employees.

“Harassment remains a serious and persistent problem for the RCMP,” said a 2017 report from Ian McPhail, chairperson of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP. “Despite some efforts, the RCMP has failed to effect the necessary changes in a meaningful or systematic way.” McPhail said the RCMP has a “dysfunctional organizational culture.”

The report also notes: “The senior leadership of the RCMP has therefore demonstrated over the last several decades that it is incapable of making the systemic reforms necessary to effect cultural change on its own.”

The last real overhaul of the RCMP was made when Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre, ordered a royal commission, in 1977, after rogue Mounties were found to be playing dirty political tricks, burning down a barn, for instance, to prevent a meeting from happening between American Black Panthers and Quebec separatists. The Trudeau government eventually stripped the RCMP of its intelligence arm, creating CSIS, the national spy service. Since then, governments have tinkered, but none have had the will to force real reform on the national police by imposing a civilian board or separating federal and contract policing.

“No federal government and no federal minister has seen a benefit in getting engaged in what is bound to be a very complex and divisive national conversation about the RCMP,” says the RMC’s Leuprecht. “Because if it goes pear-shaped, they have to own it.” In his report, Leuprecht contrasts that with the approach Jean Chrétien’s government took after Canadian soldiers beat a teenager to death during a deployment to Somalia in 1993. “Unlike the political direction received by the Canadian Armed Forces post-Somalia, which entailed sustained monitoring of implementation for several years, politicians have preferred to defer to the commissioner to fix the problems in the RCMP without subsequent monitoring.”

Leuprecht and other experts say it’s time for Ottawa to stop pushing its police on jurisdictions and get the RCMP out of contract policing. And Indigenous leaders want the federal government to properly fund Indigenous police agencies, and encourage more First Nations to police themselves.

Lucki did praise the RCMP’s model when asked about contract policing, but she didn’t answer Liberal MP Khera’s other question, about whether it’s time to change the force’s name.

The force has a global brand, with the most recognized police uniform in the world. “That’s the attitude that has served them well for years, so long as people in the country kept Dudley Do-Right at the front of their minds,” says SFU’s Gordon. “It’s not a paramilitary organization that has a history of suppression of Indigenous peoples in order to further imperial conquest in North America. It’s a Hollywood image that’s survived and that prevails.”

That brand, the powerful image, which is so closely bound to our history, good and bad, seems to also prevent politicians from acting on rational bureaucratic analyses of the force. Leuprecht says Canada should look to Northern Ireland, where the Royal Ulster Constabulary was renamed after the Good Friday Agreement, to distance it from its colonial roots, and is now called the Police Service of Northern Ireland­­—an important step in the reconciliation process.

And experts all agree—have all long agreed—that the RCMP needs civilian oversight, a police board of worthies, at arm’s length from the government, to run the service, like the ones that run every decent police service in developed countries. The previous public safety minister, Ralph Goodale, went halfway, bringing in an advisory board (which Trudeau has incorrectly called a “management board”).

The government could also reinvent the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) for the RCMP, or replace it with a more powerful body. The CRCC only reviews about 250 of 2,500 complaints a year, leaving the rest to be investigated by the Mounties. Under the current structure, when the commission completes a review, it sends its report to the RCMP, which can sit on it for as long as it likes. The force now has 181 reports awaiting release. The oldest one—almost four years old—has to do with a strip search of a female prisoner. A report on the RCMP’s response to the 2016 shooting death of Colten Boushie was delivered to the force in January. Lucki says she plans to release it in the fall.

There are signs, however, that the patience of Canadians is wearing thin. During Lucki’s appearance at committee in June, MPs were polite, but they did not look like they were buying what she was selling.

The names of those killed by the gunman appear on a flag at a memorial in Portapique, N.S. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

The names of those killed by the gunman appear on a flag at a memorial in Portapique, N.S. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

Tom Taggart, who has lost faith in the Mounties’ ability to keep Portapique residents safe, plans to take a resolution to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities calling on the RCMP to modernize contract policing, and stop playing games with rosters. He wants fully staffed detachments, and officers who know the area.

“I do not care if it is Truro [Police], RCMP or OPP. But I want change. I do not want someone who drives in here from three hours away, works a couple days, fills a position, then throws his gear in the trunk, slams it shut and goes home, who doesn’t know anybody in the community, good guys or bad guys, or if there is a hospital in Truro.” Taggart says rank-and-file Mounties know the force needs to be fixed.

History suggests that only politicians can force the RCMP to change, that it will not change itself, but that is risky territory for governments. RCMP investigations into Airbus, the sponsorship scandal, Mike Duffy’s expenses and SNC-Lavalin have all posed existential threats to Canadian prime ministers. That may explain why governments have not acted, and why they may be reluctant to act, even though everyone ought to be able to see that this is an institution that needs to be torn apart and put together again.

CORRECTION, July 9, 2020: An earlier version of this story misstated Leon Joudrey’s occupation. He is a forest technician, not a forester.


This article appears in print in the August 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The end of the RCMP?” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.