Resistance to reform: Is civilian oversight the magic bullet the Mounties need?

Over $100 million in sexual harassment payouts, more than $72 million in commissions and inquiries and at least $2.4 billion in lawsuits are still before the courts. This is just part of the cost of what the RCMP’s own Civilian Review and Complaints Commissions labeled a “culture of dysfunction.”

A Global News estimate put the total fallout from mismanagement in the last 20 years alone at more than $220 million.

More than a decade after independent investigator David Brown declared the force’s management “horribly broken” and recommended civilian oversight, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced the creation of a civilian advisory board on Jan. 16.

This is what we know so far: the advisory board will cost roughly $1.56 million per year and will not have the power to make binding decisions. Should the 13-person board get into disagreements with the commissioner, it will remain up to the Public Safety minister to intervene.

Is it enough to solve what experts call pervasive structural and cultural problems?

WATCH: How the RCMP’s efforts to protect its public image have worked

Click to play video: 'How the RCMP’s efforts to protect its public image have worked'
How the RCMP’s efforts to protect its public image have worked

Mounties who have blown the the whistle on dysfunction in the force are running low on trust. Janet Merlo, a party to the $100 million Merlo-Davidson sexual harassment settlement, has spoken at Parliament, at senate hearings and before the courts. She’s frustrated with the lack of reform, even after the lawsuit and speaking to politicians many times.


Members still reach out to her:

“They’re in dire straits and some of them are hanging on by a thread just waiting for these changes.”

Mounties weather scandal well

“One of the key factors to think about here is the longevity of the image,” says historian Michael Dawson.

For decades, Dawson has considered how much that has protected against enduring fallout from the force’s scandals. Dawson, who teaches at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, wrote the book, The Mountie From Dime Novel to Disney. It describes how the force was able to capitalize on novels and films romanticizing the Mounties with the help of a PR firm and, later, Disney.

“It’s very easy for people to say, ‘Well, this seems to be an exception to the rule because, of course, we have this internationally-recognized police force,” he says. Ergo: “It must be generally a good organization where some bad things seem to be happening.”

You have the Dudley Do-Rights and the dashing adventure stories of famous frontier Mountie Sam Steele. But that oversimplification ignores the historical purpose of the Mounties — to displace Indigenous people to make room for Western settlement.

That history appears to have bled into mistrust today: a proposed $600 million class action for the RCMP’s investigations into missing and murdered Indigenous women; another proposed $600 million class action for the force’s treatment of Indigenous people in the north; and the recent Mountie raids on one of two blockades established by the Wet’suwet’en First Nation to keep Coastal GasLink workers away from their land.

RCMP members gather at a Wet’suwet’en checkpoint after representatives from Coastal GasLink and contractors make their way through an exclusion zone at the 27 kilometre marker towards the Unist’ot’en camp to remove barriers on a bridge over the Morice River, southwest of Houston, B.C., on Friday, January 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

An advisory board might “shuffle” a few things around, says historian Steve Hewitt, but it doesn’t deal with “the fundamental core.”

“I would be surprised if it does lead to any kind of wider reckoning and reflection on where the institution has been in the past.”

The RCMP acknowledges the work it has to do. Last summer, when Commissioner Brenda Lucki apologized to the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, she said this work was “ongoing”: “Reconciliation is not a single event or statement, nor is it something that can be checked off a list. Reconciliation is a constant, a movement towards the future, a reflection of the past, and an ongoing dialogue.”

From scandals to civilian oversight

Civilian oversight is not an uncommon response to scandals.

In the 1950s, forces across primarily English-speaking countries came under civilian oversight, according to Tim Prenzler’s paper in the journal Policing & Society, because of concerns internal investigations had a “tendency” to be impacted by police trying to protect colleagues and cover up misconduct.

WATCH:  Psychiatrist Greg Passey, who has treated many members of the RCMP, explains why you can’t expect someone from within the force — even new commissioner Brenda Lucki — to fix it.

Click to play video: 'Can a Mountie be expected to fix the Mounties?'
Can a Mountie be expected to fix the Mounties?

Australia, which has had a version of civilian oversight in all eight of its jurisdictions for decades, underwent significant policing restructuring in the 21st century. At least one force in one region — the Australian Federal Police operating in the Australian Capital Territory — boasts a 79 per cent drop in internal and external complaints over 15 years.


That’s an “extraordinary” drop, according to the 2018 report examining why in the Police Practice and Research journal. Policing, researchers acknowledge, is a high-risk job, including when it comes to misconduct, assault, unnecessary force, bribery, evidence tampering, and the like.

That drop was primarily in two categories: complaints about minor management or customer services issues, and complaints that included a breach of criminal law or serious neglect of duty (not including corruption) that could warrant being fired.

READ MORE: RCMP civilian advisory board to tackle bullying, harassment — is that enough?

The Australian Federal Police focused reforms on issues similar to those the RCMP faces. It brought in a more powerful oversight agency, it emphasized ethics during the recruitment process, and it turned away from “reactive punishment” in favour of more targeted training and supervision.

Civilian oversight is an “essential” step toward improving accountability, says the researcher who wrote those reports, a criminology professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. Essential, Prenzler told Global News, “but easily designed to fail with inadequate resources, powers and jurisdictions.”

WATCH: RCMP to have new civilian oversight board 

Click to play video: 'RCMP to have new civilian oversight board'
RCMP to have new civilian oversight board

Resources are key, says Linda Duxbury, a Carleton University management professor who was commissioned by the RCMP for a 2007 workplace review. Even if the new advisory board makes changes, she says it will be difficult to do without substantial money and acknowledgement that the force is “overworked and overstressed.”

“We want to change the RCMP, but at the other end we don’t want to resource it,” she says. “We don’t want to put the consistency in place that will allow it.”

Scott Bardsley, spokesperson for the Minister for Public Safety, said the ministry acknowledges that “ensuring a healthy workplace is critical to reducing stress” and that takes an investment of resources, one the government is starting to make.

The government plan for the advisory board is to deal first with internal bullying and harassment. It will later expand into other management areas, including human resources and labour relations, performance measurement and strategic direction.

WATCH: Historian Steve Hewitt explains how the RCMP’s world-famous image both helps and hurts the institution.

Click to play video: 'Why the RCMP’s image is a double-edged sword'
Why the RCMP’s image is a double-edged sword

The RCMP is already struggling, says Peter Merrifield, a Toronto-based Mountie who fought his own harassment suit against the force. Merrifield was successful at trial, but the RCMP has since appealed and a decision is pending. Merrifield is also co-chair of the National Police Federation, which is aiming to be the bargaining unit for RCMP officers across the country after a more than decade-long fight for the right to unionize.

They’re struggling, he says, because none of the responses to the commissions, inquiries and lawsuits so far have addressed ongoing issues like pay rates, struggles to hire new members, attrition and safety on the job.

WATCH: Former cop Leo Knight explains why, ‘the RCMP needs to be… blown up’

Click to play video: 'Why ‘the RCMP needs to be… blown up’'
Why ‘the RCMP needs to be… blown up’

In a statement on behalf of the Minister for Public Safety, Bardsley wrote the government has launched a resourcing review, including funding for temporary support, in addition to adding over 900 new staff and increasing “annual investments in the RCMP by almost $700 million a year.” He also noted that it’s important to factor in the RCMP’s “comparatively larger” pensions and benefits when comparing salary, and that the government has increased pay so that that “total compensation, including pensions and benefits” is in line with other major police forces.


“Members, really, through unionizing are hoping to fix the force from the ground up,” Merrifield says, because “successive commissioners have failed to fix it from the top down.”

Bardsley wrote that the government passed legislation speeding up the process that allows the Mounties to bargain collectively, with which the future union “can engage in meaningful discussions with the employer.”

Reforming a 19th-century institution

Fixing the famous force is admittedly a tough job.

In 2010, the commissioner of the inquiry into the investigation of the Air India terrorist attack wrote that the largest mass murder in Canadian history “was the result of a cascading series of errors.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologizes to the families of the victims of Air India Flight 182 at the memorial site in Toronto on Wednesday June 23, 2010. Flight 182 was brought down by a terrorist bomb on June 23, 1985.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn.

Then, Commissioner John Major wrote the structure of the RCMP was partly to blame, that the force was poorly designed with respect to addressing terrorism concerns.

Rectifying the situation “may mean divesting the RCMP of its contracting duties so as to simplify lines of communication and to clarify the national dimensions of its mandate,” Major said.

WATCH: Members of the RCMP are trained in Regina, regardless of where they’re from and regardless of where they’ll go after. Criminologist Rob Gordon explains why this doesn’t always work.

Click to play video: 'Parachute policing: How Mounties serve communities across Canada'
Parachute policing: How Mounties serve communities across Canada

In other words, Canada must consider whether the Mounties can be both the cop who pulls you over for speeding and the cops who prevent terrorist attacks. This gets at the crux of why some believe a civilian advisory board won’t necessarily be the miracle fix: the force is just too big.

“What I think undermines the capacity of the RCMP in Canada is its failure to concentrate on serious policing,” says Robert Gordon, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in B.C. He thinks the Mounties should handle organized crime, drug enforcement, border integrity — and that’s it.

WATCH: Should the Mounties be a ceremonial force only?

Click to play video: 'Should the Mounties be a ceremonial force only?'
Should the Mounties be a ceremonial force only?

Similarly, Merrifield, who is fighting his own harassment battle against the force, says, some services like crime analysis labs should be restructured into standalone agencies to allow for strategic growth, to “catch up to what’s going on in criminality.”

While the minister’s spokesperson, Bardsley, did not specifically address Merrifield’s suggestions, he highlighted $116 million in spending for a National Cybercrime Coordination Unit, as well as $19 million for the force’s National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre.

The RCMP is powerful in part because it operates at multiple levels, Hewitt says, but then it also tries to do too many things in too many places, “and that only reduces the quality of what it’s trying to do.”

The problem, he says, is that the force is 146 years old. It was created to be national and paramilitary, he says, “hence the Mounted Police in the title.”


WATCH: Historian Michael Dawson explains how a professional wrestler who called himself “The Mountie,” helped the police force realize it needed to better police its image.​

Click to play video: 'Why the Mounties turned to Disney'
Why the Mounties turned to Disney

Add into that the hierarchical nature of the RCMP, which has been identified as the source of many of the force’s enduring cultural problems by numerous reports, including the 2017 workplace harassment review by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission.

This is a major barrier to change, says Gordon, especially given the historical hierarchy that Mounties have never shed: “No commissioner has ever really been able to wrestle with it and bring it down.”

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale acknowledged last week that modernization of the force is not an easy fix, but that “a good and meaningful beginning has been made” with the changes to oversight he’s made.

Queen Elizabeth II accepts a gift of one of the RCMP’s horses during a visit to the RCMP Training Depot at Regina, SK., July 4, 1973. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip took part in ceremonies marking the RCMP’s Centennial. (CP PHOTO)

In the meantime, Gordon says, many people who apply to the force with ideas about new ways to improve policing may leave.

“It drives them out.”

But can the force be fixed? Hewitt is one of many experts weighing the need to start over.

“Recognize that this was a police force for its time period,” Hewitt says. “You can remember it in a museum, but design a new force for the 21st century that’s going to reflect the diversity of Canada, that’s going to be acceptable to different groups in Canada, including Indigenous peoples.”

What civilian oversight will need in order to work

To provide proper oversight of a police force requires a thoughtful use of resources, says Prenzler. “It has to investigate all complaints and disclosures and provide whistleblower protection. It has to do research, auditing and prevention work, and mediation of complaints.”

WATCH: Historian Michael Dawson explains why many link the RCMP with Canada and how that can make some people reluctant to criticize the force.

Click to play video: '“To criticize the RCMP… is to criticize Canada”'
“To criticize the RCMP… is to criticize Canada”

At a minimum, Gordon says, it needs to have more power. “Every report that I’ve read over the last 20 years would suggest that the commentators and critics and analysts all think that a civilian management board should have more than just an advisory capacity,” he says.

For now, at least, the RCMP’s new interim management advisory board, which is expected to be up and running by April 1, does not have such powers. Goodale can direct RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to ask the board’s advice and he can require her to report back on whether she took action on that advice, but as Scott Bardsley, spokesperson for Goodale, said via email, “ultimate accountability is borne by the Commissioner.”