On Monday, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson announced he’ll retire from the force at the end of June. His term as top Mountie saw long-overdue reform, but also scandal—especially when it came to senior officers’ handling of internal workplace and sexual harassment complaints.
Shirley Heafey got an up-close look at the iconic institution’s problems during her term as chair of the Commission of Public Complaints against the RCMP. Now a Vancouver-based mediator who helps resolve disputes between public and police, Heafey is watching with interest as the Trudeau government searches for Paulson’s successor. To that person, she offers the following advice:
Dear Future Commissioner of the RCMP:
Your predecessor, Bob Paulson, is saying goodbye after some gruelling years dealing with problems that have plagued the organization for decades. So the time has come to talk about the leadership of this iconic institution. The opportunity is now here to act, to bring about deliberate change for a new beginning, to prevent history from repeating itself.
From 1996 to 2006, I conducted civilian oversight of the RCMP, first as a part-time member chairing hearings, and later as chair of the agency responsible for all public complaints against members of the RCMP. Occupying this position allowed me a first-hand look into the intimate workings of the service— including its policies, its training and, of course, its culture. Being privy to investigation files in handling complaints about member conduct in a multitude of contexts raised an important question: how does a police service sustain itself without serious damage to its professionalism (not to mention morale) when it is called upon to work in the varied parts of this country (each with its own very specific challenges) under conditions that are often near impossible, with little support and relevant training?
It’s a question Canadians must take seriously, given the understandable reverence for this national symbol. For many, the words “Royal Canadian Mounted Police” call to mind the members in red serge, on beautifully groomed horses, riding in unison before an audience—a scene to make hearts soar. If that’s how the idea of the RCMP makes the rest of us feel, imagine the impact it has on members who choose this line of work to serve the public. Yet it’s easy to forget that the iconic status of the RCMP can also serve as an anchor around their necks. They realize, and are frequently reminded, the reputation of the icon must be preserved—sometimes at any cost.
It came as no surprise to me that so many members, mostly women but also some men, have recently come forward with serious allegations of harassment, bullying and sexual assault. The consequences have been dire for morale. No one commissioner can lead the change required because it will take the effort of many. Leadership alone cannot mend it all.
Leadership is a big word. One that gets bandied about to the point of being cliché. I am not sure how true leadership develops and how it manifests itself. However, I do know it when I see it. As it happens, one great example of it is leaving the RCMP—retiring RCMP Deputy Commissioner Marianne Ryan. I was living in Alberta while Ryan was commander. It did not surprise me to read in a recent article of the feelings surrounding the departure of a woman referred to by one senior member as “the best boss [they] ever had.” The outpouring of respect and affection for this senior officer has been extraordinary. Her words of advice, “Take the ego out of the room,” ring true. That kind of wisdom is important, but given the problems plaguing the national police force more is needed.
There are many solutions that have been tried over the years—band-aids that cover one wound only to have another sprout up next to it. This has to end. For this police service to flourish and regain its lustre, the imbalance that exists within the ranks must be addressed. Why do so many members feel the need to speak publicly to solve problems they face in the workplace? It’s clear they feel no one is listening. Too often the leadership dismisses complaints from members and regards them as trouble-makers. Inevitably, trust is lost, and disenchantment can lead to organizational chaos.
There are many issues to be addressed but before they can be dealt with, the government must do its part and Canadians must demand that Parliament restore some balance within the RCMP, so members have the right to express their grievances and their concerns without fear of reprisal. The RCMP must have its own union so that members can be on a level playing field without walking cap in hand when they sit with their leaders to address their concerns. There is a government bill sitting idly in the House of Commons dealing with this very matter. It’s 2017, and time to make this happen. It’s also time for a newly minted RCMP commissioner to embrace and actively support a new model of labour relations that could create a clear, legally codified system of dealing with its constant issues between senior command and regular members, the way most major institutions do.
Without this, controversies will persist, courageous members will turn to the media for help and ugly public battles will continue. This is not the way to nurture a Canadian symbol.
Shirley Heafey, B.A., LL.B.