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‘Uncharted territory’: How a Mountie union could transform the famous force

How the RCMP’s efforts to protect its public image have worked
An author and criminologist explain how the RCMP's efforts to protect its image in the media have provided a protective coating strong enough to withstand a history of scandals and controversies.

One hundred years ago, when Winnipeg police officers were in a position to participate in the 1919 general strike, the Canadian government was ready.

A year prior, the federal government passed an Order-in-Council prohibiting Mounties from unionizing under threat of “instant dismissal.” So the government didn’t need local police to curtail strike activity — the federal force could do that.

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One century, one Supreme Court battle, and one fight over whether Quebec Mounties should have their own bargaining agent later, the Mounties are inching closer to a collective bargaining agreement.

Earlier this month, 97 per cent of the RCMP’s rank-and-file voted in favour of the National Police Federation (NPF) serving as their bargaining agent. Now, NPF can initiate the collective bargaining process.

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Its co-chair has pitched the union as a chance “to fix the force from the ground up,” a way to tackle poor pay, low recruitment, high attrition, and safety concerns, as well as deep-seated cultural problems that have led to several harassment class-action lawsuits.

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And yet, experts say preventing the RCMP from unionizing has always been part of what makes the paramilitary Mounties an effective policy tool for the federal government. Could unionization change that?

“It’s uncharted territory,” said Curt Taylor Griffiths, a criminology professor and co-ordinator of the police studies program at Simon Fraser University.

“This is the last non-unionized police service in Canada, and it’s huge.”

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Steve Hewitt, a senior history lecturer at the University of Birmingham, wrote three books about the RCMP’s history. In 2005, he was called as an expert witness during a legal battle launched by some retired members. A paper he submitted to the court details the control the RCMP has long exerted over its Mounties.

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Did you know that the RCMP didn’t accept married men into ranks except under unique circumstances until 1974? And that, until that same decade, it had a say in whom its members married and, in some cases, even forced members to choose between love and red serge? Even now, it can transfer members across the country against their will.

The force exerted such “unparalleled control,” Hewitt wrote, that Canada’s national police live with a “double burden … a stressful job coupled with membership in a paramilitary institution, driven throughout its history by nineteen-century values.”

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It’s likely the “Mountie mystique” and the idea it’s a prestigious job has kept people from examining the shortcomings too closely, Hewitt told Global News in an interview.

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In 1974, when there was talk of repealing that 1918 order prohibiting unionization, the federal government offered up a hefty pay increase. That was 45 years ago. The RCMP ranks 57th out of 82 comparable police forces for constable pay, according to a 2015 report, their salary lags by nearly 10 per cent. The federal government approved three salary increases shortly thereafter that it says brings the force in line with “what is provided to the eight police forces covering 90% of the Canadian population.”

It remains to be seen what winds up in a collective agreement, said Brian Sauvé, co-chair of NPF, the Mounties’ newly minted bargaining agent, although he expects it will address issues like salary, compensation, equipment and safety on the job, and the RCMP’s transfer policies.

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How the union changes the force likely won’t be truly felt for another decade or so, Sauvé said. But imagine the force then? Sauvé sees less Mountie burnout, more “give and take” between employer and employee, and no more members being “volun-told” to work overtime because of the force’s ongoing resource crunch.

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As of this month, though, Sauvé says there is one big change.

“We all served at the whim of the commissioner,” he says, but since the July vote, “we don’t.”

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“There’s actually a collective body that must be spoken to and has some clout with the commissioner and the treasury board and public safety with respect to how processes are implemented.”

That extra voice at the table matters, says Griffiths, because before issues were left “to the good faith of the organization,” one stretched thin by involvement in everything from local policing in remote, northern outposts to chasing drug traffickers to peacekeeping and to guarding the prime minister.

Yet Griffiths says better working conditions will cost governments more money.

“The argument that the RCMP is cheaper is going to disappear,” he says, which means more municipalities are going to have to think harder about whether the Mounties are the right force for them. In some cases, Griffiths says they will be, while in others they won’t (he believes Surrey has “outgrown the RCMP”).

But whether the union’s impact can extend beyond wages and working conditions remains to be seen, says Rob Gordon, another criminologist at Simon Fraser University.

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Police unions don’t tend to be all that progressive, he says, not to mention the RCMP occupies this “twilight world” between the military and local cops where the force is often brought in by federal government to deal with issues that local police can’t or won’t — as was the case in the Winnipeg General Strike.

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“It might make it more difficult for the government to use [the Mounties] as a force of last resort, to treat it as a national police force,” says Hewitt, who has previously noted the RCMP is as powerful as it is in part because it operates at multiple levels.

And while the force may operate municipally, provincially and federally, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the power to investigate RCMP management or alleged mismanagement is federal alone.

“A lot depends on the leadership and how that unfolds,” Griffiths says.

“There is a unique opportunity here for the union to be a catalyst for reform in an organization that has proven time and time again it can’t reform itself.”

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Read Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4 of our January 2019 series on the RCMP’s ‘culture of dysfunction.’ For our ongoing in-depth reporting on Canada’s national police force’s efforts to modernize, click here.