This is the fifth and final part in a special Star series looking at Canada’s national police force and what some say are the existential challenges it is facing.
It could be called the nuclear option.
There’s a belief among some that Canada should dismantle the RCMP in the face of the scandal and criticism that plague the force.
It would certainly be a dramatic change to the landscape of policing in this country. The force’s red serge, horses and the saying that they “always get their man” have long been associated with Canada. Hollywood has made productions drawing on the Mountie image for more than 100 years, going back to films such as 1921’s silent movie “O’Malley of the Mounted.”
But some argue the shiny image doesn’t fit today’s RCMP — and there are those who say it’s time to look at all the options.
Allegations of a botched response to the Nova Scotia shooting rampage, sexual harassment scandals and the potential loss of its largest detachment in Surrey, B.C., have hammered the force’s image in recent years, compounding previous controversies. Experts have said the RCMP’s problems with allegations of racism and sexism are limiting the number of people who want to become officers, contributing to staffing shortages.
Whether the 150-year-old force can move out from under such shadows and what its role should be going forward are increasingly in question, analysts say.
Those who support the RCMP insist its problems mostly boil down to chronic underfunding and that, if that issue were rectified, the force’s true potential could be met. Its union points to a high level of satisfaction from communities policed by the RCMP.
Robert Gordon, an emeritus criminology professor at Simon Fraser University in B.C., is in a different camp. He’s one of those who say things are at the point where the only real solution is to disband the Mounties and start over.
“We should have a Canadian federal police service,” Gordon said — he just thinks it shouldn’t be the RCMP.
“The RCMP, by all means, they can sit in museums and perform circles on horses at fairgrounds and things like that.”
The force is, among other things, too big to effectively run itself and must stop trying to “be all things to all people,” Gordon said.
He and others argue it no longer works and, if it is to continue, it should focus exclusively on issues such as organized crime and terrorism rather than community contract policing.
“The organization is too big; countless observers have made the same comments over many years,” he said. “They need to scale down their activities.”
“They are perfectly fine when they stick to what are called ‘federal business lines,’” Gordon said in a followup email. “Organized crime, dignitary protection, terrorism, border integrity, national drug enforcement, national cybercrime issues, etc.”
How the RCMP sees its future
The RCMP has tried to define its own role in a strategic document labelled “Vision 150 and Beyond.” It laid out the force’s vision for the future, in advance of its 150th anniversary this year.
The plan begins with a statement from Commissioner Brenda Lucki that commits to mending relations with communities where trust has been broken and later talks of reconciliation efforts with Indigenous people.
“All our employees, communities and partners have important roles to play and we must consult with those most impacted by our decision-making and the directions we take,” reads Lucki’s statement.
The strategy lays out four “pillars,” focused on people, culture, stewardship and policing. From preventing workplace harassment to better collaboration with other law enforcement agencies, the four pillars aim to improve and modernize the force. Part of the plan calls for increased accountability.
A message from Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino praises its overall goals. “The RCMP’s work this year will build on the significant progress to transform the organization’s culture, strengthen trust and confidence, and provide modern policing services that meet local needs and support partners at home and abroad,” the statement reads.
The RCMP did not make a spokesperson available for this article.
In the meantime, there are rumblings of discontent. An all-party committee established by British Columbia’s government has recommended the province move away from the force, and Alberta has been mulling its own provincial police service. Other jurisdictions have also discussed transferring policing away from the RCMP.
Michael Boudreau, a professor of criminology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, said the RCMP needs to become a federal force concerned with national crimes rather than local policing.
“They were never designed to be a rural police force,” he said. “In many ways, they’ve got to stop doing that.”
In place of the RCMP, Boudreau suggested, local or regional police forces should be used to handle daily policing. If people from the community are hired, they’ll have a better understanding of it and know the residents, he argued.
Despite internal RCMP polling showing a growing lack of trust in the Mounties across Canada, according to a Global News report in September showing 50 per cent of Canadians disagree the force is transparent, the push to make dramatic change has not emerged, according to Boudreau, and the federal government is unlikely to get involved unless public demand grows.
Should such demand for change ever come, he said, a civilian commissioner should be appointed to head the force.
“It’s time for the current commissioner to resign and it’s time for a civilian to take over the RCMP,” he said.
He added the current process to appoint commissioners is too political, including the appointment of Lucki.
The force once had a civilian leader, appointed as commissioner by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2007 and lasting until 2011. But Boudreau said the appointment of William Elliott was also seen as political and he received little support from RCMP members, who saw him as an outsider.
Should a civilian commissioner be appointed again, the process should be as far removed from politics as possible, Boudreau said, potentially using an independent panel to make the decision or even consider applications.
As for daily operations, he said, taking a step back and shrinking the force could be unpopular among the rank and file because it could mean job losses, but as provinces take over policing, jobs are likely to transfer over.
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Those who have worked within the RCMP argue that if the force were better funded, many of its problems could be overcome.
Former deputy RCMP commissioner Peter German said many issues come down to a lack of resources, and that stems from funding gaps.
“I actually quite like the RCMP’s mandate of national, provincial and municipal,” German said.
“They really complement each other in many, many different ways.”
The way the system is established now allows officers to learn various skills moving through different levels and postings within the organization, he said; it’s an advantage even specialized agencies in the United States, such as the FBI, don’t have.
He also pointed to other countries with one police force nationwide, such as New Zealand, as examples where a larger force works.
German contends the RCMP needs to see its funding boosted while keeping its current mandate.
“Obviously, they have to use those resources properly; they have to create the necessary specialized units; they have to manage resources. They have to do the job,” he said. “I’ve just seen these chronic underfunding issues tend to be the big problem.”
RCMP detachments are funded by a mix of municipal, federal and provincial governments. Municipalities pick up the largest share of the costs, at up to 90 per cent, depending on the size of the community.
In 2020-21, the force received an estimated $3.5 billion from the federal government, according to an estimate from Public Safety Canada, and was seeking an increase of $221 million.
In November, B.C.’s new premier, David Eby, provided the Mounties with a $230-million infusion to hire more officers in rural detachments and fund specialized units. The funding came despite an all-party committee recommending B.C. move away from the RCMP and look toward establishing its own force.
German said what the RCMP does with the money will be interesting to watch. The Mounties could show their problems come down to funding if they can improve service, he said.
A poll carried out in 2021 for the National Police Federation, the union representing Mounties, showed more than 76 per cent of people who live in communities policed by the force are at least somewhat satisfied with the service.
Union president Brian Sauvé said any problems the organization has had come down to a years-long lack of resources.
But he said governments around Canada are listening to the concerns over cash and it’s not just B.C. injecting more funding to beef up their detachments. Areas of New Brunswick and Yukon are among those who have paid for more officers.
Over the past three years, improvements have been made in the RCMP, he said, and with improved funding he believes the force can better carry out its mandate across the country within two to five years.
“The RCMP will actually be able to more effectively respond to their communities’ needs and more effectively provide services to contracting partners, but also do our federal mandate to the maximum capacity,” he said.
With this belief, the union has tried to address the recruiting crisis with its own campaigns to sign up new members.
In the future, perhaps more provincial civilian oversight boards or having the force fall under provincial policing acts for conduct and discipline, rather than the federal RCMP Act, could also be a step toward improved policing, Sauvé said.
‘Big is good sometimes’
Other countries have undertaken major reconfigurations of their policing.
About a decade ago in Scotland, a collection of eight police agencies were replaced by one national service. With that transition more effective policing was born, says one expert.
Prof. Nick Fyfe of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, a former director of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research, said the switch made for a more efficient and connected police force.
In Scotland’s case, the 2011 decision to explore options for police reform led to one nationalized service that works in the country of five million people, Fyfe said. It’s about the same population as B.C.
Fyfe said the goals of policing need to be clear before undertaking any rebuild.
“What do you want policing to focus on? What do you want it to do?” he said. “Big is good sometimes, particularly if you’re developing specialized expertise.”
Larger forces can offer a better set of standards as well, rather than having a “patchwork” of policing standards across the country, he added.
In Gordon’s vision of an RCMP-less country, smaller provinces could even share one force but larger jurisdictions, such as B.C., would do better to have their own.
But Gordon said he doesn’t have faith that the federal government will instigate meaningful change or reform.
“We call them the mounted police. They don’t ride horses anymore. What the hell is that all about?” Gordon said.
“They’ve just been unable to detach themselves from what has become, rapidly, a fictional history.”
Jeremy Nuttall is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star.
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