RCMP civilian advisory board ramps up, but Wally Oppal stands down

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Four months into its 18-month term, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s long-awaited civilian advisory board is down one member but still pushing to make as much of an impact as it can, says the board’s chairperson.

Richard Dicerni says the board has met four times in as many months in an attempt to understand the “extraordinarily complex organization” that is Canada’s national police force. To that end, he’s flying to Regina next week to visit Depot, where new Mounties are trained.

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“I would like to understand a bit more the pedagogical approach that is being used … and the changes that have been made and are being considered,” Dicerni says.

Jan. 16 marks one year since former public safety minister Ralph Goodale (who lost his Saskatchewan seat in the last election) announced the government’s plans to create a civilian advisory board.

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The intention was to help modernize the force, Goodale said — to put an end to long-standing issues of harassment and bullying. Goodale’s announcement came nearly two years after reports his own government commissioned described the RCMP as having a “culture of dysfunction.”

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The Liberal government’s initial goal was to have a board in place by last April. It delayed announcing the members until early June. The board met for the first time in September. Shortly thereafter, Wally Oppal — the former B.C. attorney general who chaired an inquiry into the botched investigation of serial killer Robert Pickton and another into the use of Tasers following the airport death of Robert Dziekanski — resigned.

Oppal told Global News he did so out of “an abundance of caution” over a possible conflict of interest as he’s working with B.C.’s task force to help manage the city of Surrey’s transition from the RCMP to an independent police force.

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A spokesperson for Public Safety did not respond to questions about whether Oppal would be replaced (initially, Goodale said the board would be comprised of “up to 13” members).

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Dicerni says he doesn’t have much yet to report about the board’s work, although he welcomes more conversations about its progress and impact in the coming months.

So far, a spokesperson for the force, says the meetings have centred around employee health and wellness, Mountie unionization, finances and IT. The first meeting was good, according to a letter sent by RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki and obtained through access-to-information requests.

“The meeting was both positive and productive and is an important step forward,” Lucki wrote.

Still, the board, the force and Public Safety are light on details.

That’s understandable given that culture change takes time, says Jane O’Reilly, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in organizational behaviour and human resource management.

“We definitely want to give them a chance to take that time and put the right process in place to actually enact change,” she says. “At the same time, though, there isn’t really much publicly to feel confident in that change.”

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It would be helpful to see some of the game plan, says O’Reilly — what milestone goals are in place?

“Certainly, the ultimate goal is to get sexual harassment and bullying down to zero, but there needs to be steps in place to get there, so what are those?”

The RCMP’s problems are well documented.

In its 2017 report, the force’s own Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) catalogued a litany of issues: workplace harassment, intimidation, bullying and sexual harassment, all of it well documented over decades of reports, reviews, media investigations and lawsuits.

“There has been no shortage of solutions proposed,” the CRCC’s report said.

“In the past decade alone, over 15 reviews have been conducted of the RCMP and its organizational culture, identifying a dizzying array of more than 200 recommendations for reform. Unfortunately, few have been implemented.”

One of the recurring recommendations? Civilian oversight.

That the long-awaited board would serve in an advisory capacity (Lucki is not required to follow the board’s advice) was a disappointment to many who follow the force closely.

“Every report I’ve read over the last 20 years would suggest that commentators and critics and analysts all think that a civilian management board should have more than just an advisory capacity,” Robert Gordon, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University, told Global News when the board was first announced.

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Steve Hewitt, a historian who has written extensively about the force, was also skeptical about what the advisory board might accomplish.

“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.”

Public Safety did not respond to requests for comment about the advisory board’s mandate, any milestone goals or how Public Safety is overseeing the board’s work to ensure it does what it’s intended to do.

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Dicerni, who has worked as a federal and provincial public servant and served on many boards, says he isn’t too hung up on the difference between advisory and oversight.

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From a governance perspective, he says, every organization is a little bit different and requires a different approach, including the advisory board.

“I am hopeful, and time will tell … that we will be of use to the RCMP and to the RCMP’s executive ranks.”

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