Calls for RCMP reform — and improved oversight of the national police force — have grown louder in recent weeks following several violent and fatal incidents involving Indigenous people.
But calls to “fix” the RCMP and bolster independent oversight of its members are nothing new.
Experts and critics have long been calling attention to problems with how the force is held accountable for its actions, but contend the federal government and the RCMP have been slow to respond to those concerns.
“As we’ve seen in the last few weeks — and these are all things that have happened many, many times before — leaving policing simply to the professional managers is not working and it’s not resulting in the confidence of the public,” said Kent Roach, professor of law and Prichard-Wilson Chair of Law and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.
Who oversees Canada’s national police and how does that oversight work? Here’s what you need to know.
How RCMP oversight works
Although the RCMP polices at the municipal, provincial and federal levels, it is a national police service and is ultimately accountable through the federal public safety minister to Parliament.
The RCMP Act lays out “quite a top-down” framework for oversight of the force, Roach said, with the federal public safety minister right at the top. The commissioner of the RCMP — who manages the force, under the direction of the minister — is next on the food chain.
“Whereas most police forces are responsible to local boards, the RCMP doesn’t have that level of accountability,” said Roach.
Investigations into possible criminal conduct by the RCMP is not uniform across Canada and depends on the province or territory where the incident occurred.
Many provinces have independent police watchdogs — Alberta’s Serious Incident Response Team is one example — but in other jurisdictions, oversight agencies from other regions are brought in to investigate.
In Nunavut, for example, the Ottawa Police Service has a memorandum of agreement with the territory to investigate serious incidents involving RCMP, said Erick Laming, a Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto.
In the Yukon, ASIRT is brought in to investigate serious incidents involving RCMP in that territory. And in New Brunswick — where two Indigenous people were shot dead by police in the span of 10 days this month — investigators from Quebec’s independent police watchdog are probing the deaths.
How provincial oversight agencies are staffed is also not consistent across the board, according to Laming, whose research focuses on police use of force, oversight and accountability and their impact on Indigenous and Black communities.
At some watchdogs, the investigators are civilians, current police officers, former police officers — or a mix, he said, and close to seven provincial police oversight agencies are government-led.
Some of those agencies don’t have the criminal authority to lay charges and not all release reports on their probes, according to Laming.
The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission
If a civilian wants to submit a complaint about the conduct of an RCMP member, they can bring it to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) for the RCMP, an agency independent from the national police force.
Usually, the CRCC will leave it to the RCMP to first investigate the complaint internally — or to a provincial authority — but the agency can choose to open an investigation if the complainant isn’t satisfied with the result, according to CRCC’s website. The agency says it receives about 2,000 complaints every year.
Should the CRCC decide that the complaint warrants further review, that kick-starts a process that can potentially result in a separate investigation and in some cases, take months or years.
Once the CRCC has completed its review or investigation, the agency will send an interim report with its findings and recommendations to both the RCMP commissioner and the federal public safety minister. It’s then on the commissioner to issue a reply and communicate what actions the force will take in response.
The recommendations by the CRCC aren’t binding, but if the RCMP doesn’t plan to pursue them, it has to explain why. The final report won’t be released until after the commissioner’s response is received.
“It’s the commissioner who is really in the driver’s seat,” said Roach.
The agency only releases certain reports to the public in order to protect complainants’ privacy. It does release “public interest investigations about incidents that are already in the public domain.”
The most recent completed reports available on the CRCC’s website were posted in 2017. The agency, for example, has yet to release its final reports into its investigation of the RCMP’s conduct during protest against shale gas exploration in Kent County, N.B. in 2013 and its probe into how the RCMP handled the investigation into the shooting death of Colton Boushie, a young Indigenous man.
What have experts and critics said about RCMP oversight?
According to Laming, current oversight of the RCMP is “a broken system across the board” — in part because of the “inconsistency” of how officers are held accountable for their actions across the country.
While he argued that independent oversight agencies are needed, the system is losing public confidence because citizens see current or former police officers handling serious investigations into other officers.
Darryl Davies, a professor of criminology at Carleton University, argued he has no confidence in “police investigating police.”
“There’s bias implicit there, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. It’s simply not acceptable,” Davies said.
The current setup had led to widespread concerns about a lack of transparency and “the insidiousness of police culture and loyalty,” according to Qajaq Robinson, a practicing lawyer in Nunavut and Ontario and a former commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
“People aren’t seeing justice done. They’re not seeing the work of these agencies,” she said. “Accessing the information is very challenging. Accessing information about the outcome of complaints or the number of complaints is very difficult to get to.
“This issue of transparency is so, so problematic.”
Laming, Robinson and Davies all argued that having investigators parachute in from other jurisdictions is also problematic because those people usually aren’t familiar — or as familiar — with the community’s history, geography or people.
As for the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, Laming and Roach suggested the agency is “toothless” because its recommendations aren’t binding.
Some, including Davies, have argued in favour of establishing a civilian oversight body completely independent from government that would complete its probes more quickly.
For many critics, a major solution to RCMP oversight lies in overhauling the force’s policing model entirely — not just the groups that review officers’ conduct after incidents occur.
The RCMP is contracted for policing services in the three territories in eight of Canada’s 10 provinces and serves hundreds of municipalities and Indigenous communities.
Roach, who has sat on research advisory committees and public inquiries that have dealt with the RCMP, said the solution to that isn’t necessarily an entirely “new blueprint from the top.”
“I think we have to decide how each individual community wants to interact with the RCMP. So something that works in the Yukon may not necessarily work in a small town in New Brunswick,” he said.
With Indigenous communities specifically, they should be self-determining in deciding who polices them,” Robinson noted.
But Christian Leuprecht, a professor at Queen’s University and the Royal Military College of Canada who did a study on fixing different aspects of the RCMP, argued Canada does need to “completely rethink how we manage structure, to organize governance, policing and police organisations.”
“It’s not just about holding police to account. It’s also about making police better at what they do,” he said.
Leuprecht also argued the RCMP “does way too many things.”
“There’s several reports that the government itself has commissioned … so it’s not like there’s sort of some big debate about what needs to be done,” he said. “There’s fairly broad agreement … and neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals have had the stomach to do it.”
What the federal government has said recently about RCMP oversight
Global News asked the office of Public Safety Minister Bill Blair on Tuesday whether the federal government is exploring changes to RCMP oversight mechanisms and whether it will introduce any additional oversight in line with calls for change.
In a statement, the office highlighted a government bill that the Liberals argue will “strengthen” the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP.
If the bill is approved, the commission’s mandate would be expanded to also provide civilian oversight for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the commission would be renamed to the Public Complaints and Review Commission.
The statement from Blair’s office didn’t indicate whether the commission would receive more resources to fulfill those additional responsibilities. However, the statement said the renamed commission would publish an annual report tabled in Parliament that summarizes resources devoted to both the RCMP and CBSA, its yearly operations (including “the number and type of complaints”) and “information on the number, type and outcomes for serious incidents.”
“The new Public Complaints and Review Commission proposed under Bill C-3 would close a gap in Canada’s public safety accountability regime,” the statement said.
“In the last parliament this bill received all party support in the House in recognition of its practical contents that seek to maintain the integrity of our border services and instill confidence in Canadians that their complaints will be independently heard.
“It is overdue and we look forward to resuming debate on this bill at the first available opportunity.”
Parliamentary business unrelated to the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been put on pause.
The federal government has also recently signalled it will push for more widespread use of body cameras by the RCMP and other police forces. But critics have argued that equipping all RCMP officers with the cameras won’t, on its own, solve problems of accountability and transparency in the police service.
Leuprecht argued what the Liberal government has proposed to date doesn’t go far enough.
“I think the frequency and the confluence of all these incidents and the RCMP suggest the longer you hold out on making a serious commitment to reform, the more frequent and more serious these incidents will get,” he said.
“We’re going to get to a crisis point where the government will have no choice but to act. And those are always the worst situations in which to act … because there’s huge pressure from the public, politicians are forced to make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make in a rational world.”
— With files from Global News’ Maryam Shah and the Canadian Press