No Canadian leader has ever been protected like Stephen Harper.
During his six-year tenure, the Prime Minister’s Protection Detail has gotten new weapons, bigger all-wheel drive vehicles, and a new training regimen involving mock attacks, target practice and paintball drills. There is a growing use of SWAT teams in the Prime Minister’s motorcade, and the Mounties on the detail are fitter and better trained than ever.
The Prime Minister sees trade as a top priority and travels the world extensively, as well as to remote locations all over Canada. He also has a wife and two school-aged children who need protection, as well.
This combination of world-travel risks and the increased threat level at home has seen the transformation of the security detail from a cozy enclave of the RCMP into a tightly run tactical squad, insiders said.
It is also expensive: Overtime has gone through the roof, and the budget of the PMPD, as the unit is called, is set to reach $20-million this year, or twice the 2006 cost. The Prime Minister’s Office and the RCMP say the increase in costs is justifiable, since security concerns are growing and threats are now taken more seriously.
Simply put, the bulked-up unit of elite bodyguards wants to be seen as the best in the world. However, low morale among Mounties who don’t fit in their boss’s scheme is threatening to derail the plan. This shift has stirred resistance, as well as questions about whether the PMPD is going in the right direction.
A management review of the top Mountie on the protection detail, Superintendent Bruno Saccomani, was leaked this week, launching a new round of allegations of harassment and bullying in the force. Unnamed RCMP bodyguards said they are nervous in Supt. Saccomani’s presence and sick of his verbal tirades.
“There were many examples given of employees being harshly reprimanded in front of their peers, in front of personnel from outside agencies, while on trips both domestic and abroad,” the report said.
Other criticisms include long shifts without any food or bathroom breaks, and a fear of punitive assignments in the event of any complaint.
The PMO, however, made clear it was entirely satisfied with the PMPD. A number of Supt. Saccomani’s supporters have jumped to his defence, stating no one has filed a formal complaint against him.
“He doesn’t always wear white gloves,” said a current member of the PMPD who, like other colleagues, spoke on condition of anonymity. “I mean, this is not a ballerina unit, with white gloves and tutus.”
The leaking of the report has fuelled rumours of infighting in the force, as officers claimed internal politics are at play among ambitious Mounties. The force, already facing allegations of systemic sexual harassment, has clearly shown it prefers taking action – including assigning a management “coach” to Supt. Saccomani – than being accused of ignoring the situation.
There are a variety of issues at play. The unit’s ballooning budget has generated envy in the RCMP, as other sections deal with cutbacks. Still, Supt. Saccomani would like to bring more personnel under his wing in Ottawa, feeling staff in places like Montreal and Vancouver are underused given the nature of Mr. Harper’s travel schedule, insiders said.
The internal conflict goes back to the night in 1995 when André Dallaire easily avoided the Mounties and entered 24 Sussex Dr. with a knife. The security breach could have been deadly, but a tragedy was avoided when Aline Chrétien, armed with an Inuit sculpture, locked the bedroom door in the prime ministerial residence and waited for the bodyguards to finally come to the rescue.
According to PMPD members, the episode was symptomatic of lax security concerns in the RCMP that continued, to varying degrees, until Supt. Saccomani took greater responsibilities in the detail in 2007, before becoming its leader in 2009.
The detail was long seen as a pre-retirement posting, with benefits such as international travel, air miles, and hotel reward points. The four previous prime ministers lived in Quebec, and the two immediate predecessors did not have young kids.
Now, the Prime Minister frequently goes West, and when he visits Quebec, he often picks isolated destinations.
The transformation has been massive, both in terms of logistics and culture. RCMP and government sources said the PMPD used to rely on foreign protection details to ensure security during overseas visits.
Now, the PMPD insists on having the lead wherever they can, with no tolerance for any risk to Mr. Harper’s safety. But foreign visits are also a source of tensions inside the detail, as they are seen as a perk, sometimes doled out to Supt. Saccomani’s alleged favourites, according to the management report.
Overtime is also highly prized, as members of the PMPD routinely make over $100,000 a year with the extra pay that comes with the long hours. However, insiders said some of their colleagues want the money, but not Supt. Saccomani’s demanding style.
The grumblings about Supt. Saccomani have created clans inside the PMPD, with supporters arguing their views were not put forth in the critical management report.
It remains to be seen whether the current controv ersy will change anything inside the PMPD. The RCMP brass wants the management style to evolve, and have sent out a survey to the detail’s 120 members asking whether they have seen any improvements in Supt. Saccomani’s management style.
But some members of the unit hope that Supt. Saccomani’s vision – which has won over the PMO – will survive.
“He wants members who think more tactically, think more gung-ho, look more fit, who have the whole package,” said one member. “He wants a world-class unit and we’re moving in that direction.”