There’s an old saw that says when you need a job done, give it to somebody who already has too much to do.
If this cliché were ever true, it is rarely applicable in the complex employment world of today. Saddling organizations and their employees with too many tasks — and not enough training to complete them — is a recipe for not getting things done or, worse, doing them very badly.
So why is it that our country’s national police force is still being asked to fulfil an overwhelmingly wide mandate that is making it less effective, less responsible and less able to ensure public safety?
While there may have been a time when the RCMP’s broad job description made sense, the realities of our evolving society make it imperative that the force’s role be redefined.
The most recent advocate for reform is Michel Bastarache, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who wrote in a scalding report on compensation for RCMP employees experiencing harassment that the culture of the force was toxic. It is, he argued, time the government asks hard questions about Canada’s national police service.
One of those questions is whether the force’s provincial policing role is appropriate for a national organization. The current job description includes everything from municipal policing, to provincial policing in eight of 10 provinces and three territories, plus providing services on hundreds of First Nations lands. Add responsibility for organized crime, terrorism, drugs, human smuggling, and forensic and other technical services provided to other agencies, and you get the idea.
This enormous mandate makes it impossible for the RCMP to do everything that’s expected to ensure public security.
Another key issue is the matter of accountability. As a former deputy solicitor general and deputy minister of public security, I can tell you that in the provinces where the RCMP acts as a provincial force, it’s never clear where the lines of authority and accountability run.
Take for example the 2020 tragedy in Nova Scotia in which 22 people were killed by a lone gunman. Questions have been raised over the immediate response to the rampage, while confusion reigned in the aftermath over which level of government should be responsible for the subsequent inquiry.
Sadly, experience suggests that the RCMP is a provincial force accountable to the provincial attorney general when that suits the interests of the divisional commander, and a federal force when the advantage tips the other way.
We hear, for example, of officers who have spent years in rural communities being asked to work on money laundering or national security — areas for which they have not been adequately trained. Last year, B.C.’s Cullen Commission into money laundering heard testimony that police in B.C. lack training to prevent this complicated crime. Meeting modern-day challenges requires new kinds of employees, with different skills and training, and a dramatically different allocation of overall resources. Under its current structure, we are asking the RCMP and its employees to do the impossible.
RCMP priorities are also skewed by the fact that in the provinces where the RCMP acts as the provincial force, the provinces pay at least 70% of the cost of policing. This means the provinces often determine much of the activity performed by a federal organization. By the same token, it means the federal government subsidizes functions that are provincial in jurisdiction. We need to ask ourselves whether the national force is capably dealing with emerging 21st century threats like hate crime, transnational crime and opioid smuggling.
So, what to do?
Now is an opportune moment for senators to perform a review of the RCMP. The contracts between the RCMP and the provinces are not due to be renewed until 2032, providing ample time to discuss and prepare for change.
One of the essential responsibilities of the Senate is the care of Canada’s national institutions. Moreover, most senators no longer belong to an established political party, giving the Upper Chamber freedom from electoral considerations to conduct a fair and impartial review. The Senate’s mandate of regional representation also makes it a good candidate for the job, given the importance of the force to the West.
The inquiry should look at the role and mandate of a 21st century national police service, the skills required to be effective, as well as the resources and organization needed, and recruitment practices. I hope to to this effect at the soonest opportunity.
Canadians have expressed pride in the symbols of the RCMP. The scarlet tunic, the musical ride and training at the “depot” in Regina are international icons. But nostalgia can’t blind us to the need for change in a world where threats come in increasingly varied, menacing and complex forms.
Senator Peter Harder represents Ontario in the Senate.
A similar version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2021 edition of Policy Options.