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Superintendent Marty Cheliak speaks to reporters outside the RCMP detachment in Mayerthorpe, Alta., on March 4, 2005. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
Superintendent Marty Cheliak speaks to reporters outside the RCMP detachment in Mayerthorpe, Alta., on March 4, 2005. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Controversy

Removal of firearms watchdog has critics screaming 'censorship' Add to ...

RCMP Chief Superintendent Marty Cheliak was to be celebrated by his peers next week for helping to forge a large coalition of police officers, chiefs and watchdogs in favour of an improved long-gun registry.

Instead, the director-general of the RCMP's Canadian Firearms Program has been replaced, with the force saying he "does not currently meet the linguistic requirements of the position" and that the job was designed to be held by an officer of assistant commissioner rank.

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Critics believe Chief Supt. Cheliak was removed from his job for championing one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's pet peeves - the long-gun registry. Chief Supt. Cheliak made headlines earlier this year when he appeared before a parliamentary committee and presented a vigorous defence of the registry, saying it "does serve a very real purpose and contributes to police officer safety and the safety of all Canadians."

He has become the latest in a growing list of federal officials who critics say are being silenced for embarrassing the Harper government. His surprising exit from the RCMP's firearms program also fuelled the sense of turmoil at the top of the RCMP, where a number of senior officers vented their anger over Commissioner William Elliott's management style last month.

Chief Supt. Celiak was supposed to be in Edmonton next Monday as a speaker at the 2010 conference of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, after which he was to receive the President's Award from Toronto Police Chief William Blair.

However, Chief Supt. Cheliak is now officially on vacation at home, and he will receive the prize "in absentia," according to a spokesman for Mr. Blair.

Critics took issue with an RCMP statement that Chief Supt. Cheliak did not have the linguistic requirements for the job.

"He wasn't bilingual when he was put in the job nine months ago," said Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, an expert on the RCMP.

The Conservative government denied any involvement in either Chief Supt. Cheliak's departure or his replacement by Pierre Perron, another chief superintendent who will be promoted to the rank of assistant commissioner.

"In terms of staffing decisions in the RCMP, these are made by the RCMP themselves," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.

Opposition parties claimed there is a clear parallel with the government's attacks against various federal watchdogs, including Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran, parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, former RCMP watchdog Paul Kennedy and Linda Keen, the former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

"It's called censorship when you censor evidence-based advice, when you suppress evidence-based policy-making," said Liberal MP David McGuinty. "That's what's dangerous and wrong about this."

In a statement on Wednesday, Chief Supt. Perron said that the RCMP's firearms program has "contributed to officer and public safety," but he said he will abide by Parliament's will.

The Harper government is currently putting pressure on a handful of Liberal and NDP backbenchers in the hope that they will vote next month in favour of a private-member's bill to kill the registry.

"This government strongly favours the abolition of the long-gun registry for farmers and duck hunters. It is wasteful, it has been ineffective," Mr. Harper said on Wednesday.

The Conservative government has faced opposition from various police groups. The president of the Canadian Police Association, Charles Momy, said Chief Supt. Cheliak had helped create a unique coalition this year in favour of the registry among front-line officers, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and civil oversight bodies across the country.

"He has brought together three national police associations across the country, which had never been done before, especially by a member of the RCMP," Mr. Momy said. "I'm hoping that [Chief Supt. Perron]will continue the work that Marty Cheliak has done over the last nine months."

The Harper government has also had to deal with mounting frustrations in the RCMP about Commissioner Elliott's management style. It has hired an independent adviser to assess the work environment in the RCMP after senior officers complained to their bureaucratic bosses about Mr. Elliott's temper and the way he deals with his junior and senior officers.

The review is under way, but Mr. Kenny said some members have complained that they are unable to meet with adviser Reid Morden.

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