What to Do With the RCMP?

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Media coverage of the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission’s recent report have concentrated on the perceived incompetence of the RCMP.  On the one hand, this is not surprising. Certainly there were a number of problems with the Mounties’ response to the 2020 shooting tragedy, to say nothing of the failure of the Force’s leadership to come to grips with those problems in the interim. Former Commissioner Brenda Lucki was certainly wise to resign before the report was tabled. And, as many observers have noted, there is surely no possibility that acting Commissioner Mike Duheme will be able to convert that role into a permanent one after his disastrous non-response to the report’s publication.

On the other hand, it is also important to note that this was an unprecedented event and the problems it posed for those on the ground were numerous and complex.  Moreover, by placing most of the blame, and the attention, on the shortcomings of those involved in the actual response, we risk missing the bigger picture, namely the underlying problems with the role and organization of the RCMP as a whole.  

The report itself further diffuses attention by focusing on a number of peripheral issues that, while important, are either broadly-based and widely recognized societal concerns, such as intimate partner violence, or ones that require legal and/or governmental responses. For example the issue of access to illegal firearms is one the federal government was already in the process of addressing at the time of the incident and is still struggling with amidst competing political pressures.  

As for the issue of communications technology raised in the report, a number of commentators have noted that the RCMP was not set up to use the Alert Ready system. But this is due in large measure to jurisdictional and governmental issues unrelated to the RCMP’s mandate. To begin with, Canada’s approach to a public alert system is unlike that of our counterparts.  Rather than being under the aegis of a national emergency preparedness agency, as is the case elsewhere, our Alert Ready system was designed by the CRTC, (the radio, television and telecommunications regulator), and is overseen by the parent company of the Weather Network. This, in turn, reflects the original perception of the system as an early warning device for natural disasters. B.C., for example, originally authorized its use for tsunami warnings, and then in 2022 expanded its application to wildfires, floods and heat warnings.

The Alert Ready system is also subject to the realities of Canadian federalism. Its use and application vary across the country. While it is true that some individual police agencies and the RCMP have used the system a number of times since 2020 to alert citizens to criminal/human threats to public safety, there is still no standardized set of national guidelines for its use and application, a situation which, as the Commission noted, will require federal-provincial negotiations to resolve.

Unfortunately the most significant and potentially far-reaching recommendation of the report, namely to re-examine the role of the RCMP in provincial and municipal policing, has been largely drowned out in the scattergun media commentary or, at best, relegated to the status of simply one among many equally important concerns. Yet this problem is at the heart of the Force’s seemingly chaotic response to the Nova Scotia tragedy.   

The Force currently has two distinctly different roles which, as events have again demonstrated, may be incompatible. The first is to function as a national police force, with primary responsibility for three major issues: border security (anti-terrorism, smuggling), money laundering and organized crime. Each of these three areas requires highly specialized personnel and are costly to maintain. Moreover with the increased prevalence of all three problem areas, there is increased political pressure on federal governments to provide greater financial support and personnel. [i] This in turn can impact administrative decisions on available funding for the second major function, the provision of provincial and municipal police services on contract. 

Unbeknownst to many Canadians in central Canada, the RCMP provides both provincial and municipal police services in all parts of the country outside of Ontario (OPP) and Quebec (QPP). At last count this means the RCMP serves as the only police force in 8 provinces, three territories, and some 150 municipalities as well as indigenous communities. In BC, only 11 municipalities have their own police force (around metro Vancouver on the lower mainland, and on Vancouver Island) while the remaining 63 municipalities are served by regional posts. This means, for example, that the North Okanagan detachment serves the towns of Armstrong, Enderby, Falkand, Grindrod, Lumby, Mabel Lake, Mara, Spallumcheen, Cherryville, Coldstream, Monty Creek and Westwold, in addition to the city of Vernon (pop 67,000)  

The implications for this in Atlantic and Western Canada are huge. With no provincial police force of their own, provinces sign long-term contracts with the federal government in order for the RCMP to fulfill that function. The same is true for municipalities. Needless to say, the demographic imbalance between large urban areas, smaller centres and rural regions, and in western Canada the greater expanse of territory to be covered, mean that the number of individual members of the force available to serve a geographic area can vary considerably. Put in comparative perspective, in Ontario the cities of Thunder Bay (population 110,000) and Kingston (pop. 136,000) are served by a local police force and can call on the OPP if necessary. By contrast, the cities of Kelowna (pop 132,000) and Kamloops (pop 90,000) in BC are served by regional RCMP detachments that must also handle rural cases in the surrounding areas as well.

Moreover each province or municipality can arrange its policing system as it chooses, including what is covered in the contract and how many agents will be provided. In Nova Scotia, for example, there are no local police forces but the Halifax area is served by a Halifax Regional Unit in the core and an RCMP detachment in the outlying areas. No other communities in Nova Scotia have their own police force.

This model of contract policing was long considered economically advantageous for both the federal government and the provinces, but the non-financial costs have been steadily mounting. In the past few years the system has seen fewer individuals assigned to many locations, and many of them are unfamiliar with the areas they serve. Response times have increasingly become a problem as well.  At the same time, both provinces and municipalities are reluctant to increase costs dramatically as the tax implications for their residents would be significant, as would the costs of attempting to create a stand-alone provincial or municipal force. [ii]

Western Canadians in particular have traditionally had an extremely positive view of the RCMP, whose major training center for all of Canada is located in Regina. However, a number of highly publicized negative incidents in the region in recent years has led to considerable concern about public safety, long before the tragedy in Nova Scotia. In addition, the force has been plagued by a series of internal scandals and controversies related to its culture of systemic racism and sexual harassment.

Although contractual arrangements are in place for a twenty-year period, (with the current set of contracts due to expire in 2032), it is possible for a province or municipality to terminate their agreement on March 31st of any year with a 24-month notice. The city of Richmond, BC, for example, seriously considered the creation of a local police department in 2016, but the idea was rejected in the end as too costly. Nevertheless discontent has grown in some areas, albeit sometimes for partisan political reasons as well. Currently the province of Alberta under newly minted premier Danielle Smith is actively considering the option of establishing its own police force.     

The fact that the federal government is currently exploring options for reform of the Force is likely a positive step. Public Safety Minister Marco Mendocino’s mandate letter of January 2022 specifically charges him with consulting provinces, municipalities and indigenous communities to determine whether the current model of contract policing should be retained, modified, or replaced.[iii]

In this context, the Mass Casualty Commission Report has missed an opportunity to provide significant input into the consultation process, or indeed to draw greater attention to that process.[iv] As one political commentator has concluded, “after three years and $25 million, it is inexplicable that the commissioners did not do a deeper dive into how the RCMP was structured.” It is worth noting that it was a series of RCMP national security scandals in the 1970’s that led to the hiving off of the security intelligence function to a new agency, CSIS, in 1984. Perhaps the tragedy in Nova Scotia will be the impetus for a new round of organizational change at the troubled national police force.

[i] See for example the case of BC: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/peter-german-money-laundering-report-2019-1.5089036

[ii] Provinces and territories pay 70% of RCMP costs and the federal government pays 30%. There are three types of cost-share ratios for municipalities:

  • a 70% municipal & 30% federal government cost-share ratio for municipalities with a population of less than 15,000.
  •  a 90% municipal & 10% federal government cost-share ratio for municipalities with a population greater than 15,000.
  • Since 1991, municipalities never before policed by the RCMP must pay 100% of contract policing costs.

[iii] https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/rcmp-contract-policing-assessment-1.6315473

[iv] https://www.hilltimes.com/story/2023/04/03/mass-casualty-commission-misses-the-mark/383360/