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RCMP Commissioner William Elliott photograph during an interview at RCMP Headquarter in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
RCMP Commissioner William Elliott photograph during an interview at RCMP Headquarter in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

William Elliott on remaking the culture of the Mounties Add to ...

The office of the Commissioner of the RCMP is a testament to 137 years of tradition, with a collection of swords at the entrance and Mountie paraphernalia adorning the wood-panelled walls.

But something stands out amidst the pomp. On a bookshelf along one wall is a white-haired bobble-head doll representing William Elliott. There is no red serge, horse or sidearm for this Commissioner in effigy, but rather a bureaucratic uniform of slacks, dark jacket and sober tie. The veteran civil servant is the first to admit that after three years leading Canada's national police force, he still hasn't entirely come to grips with all of the 19th- and 20th-century pageantry that engulfs his position.

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"There is a sort of a celebrity aspect to being the Commissioner of the RCMP, which is a little odd and uncomfortable for me even after all this time. It makes communications a whole lot more challenging," Mr. Elliott said in a recent interview.

Whether Mr. Elliott is the right person at the right time for the RCMP is open to debate. Over the summer, some of his top cops felt the experiment with a civilian commissioner had run its course. According to the complainants, Mr. Elliott threw temper tantrums, failed to listen to his officers, acted disrespectfully and suppressed dissent. There were also concerns that he didn't understand police operations, and that he failed to build, or even maintain, links with other police forces inside and outside of Canada.

Mr. Elliott, however, faced the mutineers head-on and got the support of the Harper government, which brought him in to reshape the force after years of scandal and controversy. Firmly ensconced in his position, Mr. Elliott, 56, intends to continue overseeing a process of change in a paramilitary organization wedded to tradition. In particular, he wants the RCMP to move away from its strict chain-of-command hierarchy to allow for more candid discussion and debate among its members.

"There are some … cultural issues that were are working to overcome," he said. "It is fundamentally important that people feel not only at liberty to speak their minds, but in fact that they feel an obligation to do so."

There is no doubt that over the years Mr. Elliott has failed to get his message across and alienated some of his officers.

"I'm a loud guy. I'm big, loud, direct, plain-speaking," Mr. Elliott said in his ever-booming voice. "At times, I'm blunt to a fault. The fact that I'm the Commissioner of the RCMP exacerbates a challenge that I had long before I came to this job."

The events of the last four months have created new relationships in the force, he said, with people more likely today to express their views than stifle them. But the crisis is still reverberating throughout the RCMP as officers digest last week's departure of Deputy Commissioner Raf Souccar, the best known of the failed mutineers, who lost his position as head of federal policing. Officially, Mr. Souccar is awaiting "his next assignment," which will be somewhere outside the RCMP.

"Obviously, I need a team that I have trust and confidence in," Mr. Elliott said. "The best thing for Raf and for the RCMP is for us to find ways to move forward without him being a member of my senior management team."

Mr. Elliott is facing criticism that he is surrounding himself with his supporters and yes men. However, he said that some of the officers who complained about him are remaining in their positions and will not be pushed aside.

"There are no other relationships from my perspective that haven't been repaired or aren't repairable," he said.

Mr. Elliott is continuing to work on the task that was given to him in the summer of 2007, after a series of scandals led to the departure of then-commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli. At the time, the RCMP was scrutinized by a series of commissions and inquiries, culminating in the assertion by David Brown, a government-appointed investigator, that the management of the force was "horribly broken."

A lawyer with a broad background in the civil service, Mr. Elliott knew full well many of the challenges that were awaiting him as he took over the RCMP, such as severe recruiting shortfalls and a force made fragile by controversies like the case of Maher Arar. He is particularly happy that the government is moving to ensure increased civilian oversight of the RCMP, and he is open, under certain conditions, to the creation of a new board of directors to oversee the force.

Still, the former senior bureaucrat at Justice, Transport and Public Safety Canada continues to adjust to life in the RCMP.

"I've never worked in an organization that complained more about bureaucracy than the RCMP, and I've never worked in a more bureaucratic organization," Mr. Elliott said.

Saying that things are slowly changing, he bemoans the paperwork that continues to affect everything from front-line policing to recommendations for commendations.

"We are not a modern, nimble, streamlined organization from the point of view of the back office," he said.

He agrees with the requirement for written records, but he'd like the Mounties to spend more time on the phone talking to one another. Still, he cautions that he doesn't want the results of these discussions and debates to spill out in the open once again.

"I'm not saying, 'Throw out the chain of command.' I'm not saying that I'm inviting chaos," he said.

He added that the last thing that he wants is another internal crisis to hit the headlines. "I don't think the most constructive way to deal with issues is if you are responding to things that appear in the national media," he said.

The C.V.: William J.S. Elliott

Position

22nd Commissioner of the RCMP, appointed in July, 2007.

Training

Lawyer since 1981.

Politics

Worked in senior positions in the office of Conservative deputy prime minister Don Mazankowski in the Mulroney government from 1988 to 1992.

Government

Senior civil servant under Conservative and Liberal governments at Justice, Indian and Northern Affairs, the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport and Public Safety, in addition to being Prime Minister Stephen Harper's national security adviser.

Family

Married, father of four.

Hobby

Sings in a barbershop choir, the Capital City Chorus.

Main critics

Deputy Commissioner Raf Souccar, former assistant commissioner Mike McDonell, Liberal Senator Colin Kenny.

Criticism

That Mr. Elliott is dictatorial and confrontational, has failed to win necessary funding increases from the Harper government, hasn't appropriately fostered relations with other police forces, and lacks the experience to oversee police operations.

Mantra

"Change is necessary, change is happening" and all RCMP members have a responsibility to "bring it about."

Next

Mr. Elliott has talked about fulfilling a five-year mandate, but he said it could be shorter or longer, depending on the government's wishes.

- Daniel Leblanc









Follow on Twitter: @danlebla

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