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RCMP officers march in Regina on Sunday, September 12, 2010.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Taylor (Mark Taylor/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
RCMP officers march in Regina on Sunday, September 12, 2010.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Taylor (Mark Taylor/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Did the RCMP confiscate guns in High River? Hardly Add to ...

It’s not often that one feels sorry for the RCMP. The federal police force has embarrassed itself more than a few times lately and come in for some rough criticism. But a new rebuke of the Mounties’ actions during the catastrophic flooding in High River, Alta., in 2013 is unfair, given what the RCMP officers were faced with. Not only that, Prime Minister Stephen Harper owes the Mounties an apology for unfairly criticizing them during the height of the crisis.

The rebuke comes from the RCMP Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, which ruled last week that the Mounties exhibited a number of “failings” during the flooding. But in the process of establishing the facts, the Commission makes a good case that the Mounties in fact did extraordinary work and were unfairly saddled with the anger of residents forced out of their homes. Mr. Harper’s pile-on only made matters worse.

High River flooded within a matter of hours on June 20, 2013. The damage was instant and massive; half the town’s 4,700 homes were left uninhabitable, and more than 600 were writeoffs.

By noon of the first day, the town had no telephone, cellphone, radio or Internet communications. People were trapped in homes and in cars. The High River emergency operations centre (EOC) declared a state of emergency and ordered a mandatory evacuation of the entire town. It then ordered the RCMP to inspect every single home to make sure no one was stranded.

In the course of those inspections, the RCMP rescued 38 people. They also discovered that some homeowners had taken their firearms out of locked storage and moved them to higher ground to prevent them from being damaged. In one home, officers found 50 unsecured weapons in a child’s bedroom. In other homes, there were fully operational guns on tables and stacked against walls.

Worried about looting, and the possibility of the guns falling into criminal hands, in many cases the Mounties seized the firearms on the spot. In other cases, they left the guns but went back for them later. In a few cases, they simply moved the guns out of view by hiding them in a closet or locking them in an available room in the house.

It’s an offence under the Criminal Code to leave a legal firearm unsecured. But the RCMP never intended to lay charges. The Complaints Commission accepts that the officers only ever wanted to gather up the weapons, store them safely at their headquarters, and then return them in an orderly fashion after the crisis had passed. All have since been returned.

By the time the original 4,700 home checks were done, the RCMP had collected 609 firearms from 105 residences. In the following days, the EOC ordered the RCMP to return to the homes to help with the rescue of 700 abandoned pets. And then it ordered the RCMP to go back one more time with tradesmen doing safety inspections.

At the same time, the RCMP had to deal with upset and angry residents. In the chaos, the officers became the de facto spokespersons for the evacuation and rescue operations, even though those operations were run by the EOC. Communications with the residents was poor, and people blamed the police.

The Complaints Commission now says the RCMP officers acted properly when they seized the unsecured firearms. Although the police entered the homes without a warrant, they had been authorized to do so by Alberta’s Emergency Management Act. Under the Criminal Code, they were also within their rights to seize firearms that weren’t properly secured.

But the Complaints Commission says the RCMP didn’t have the authority to later return to homes solely to seize firearms; that a small number of the weapons were properly secured and shouldn’t have been taken; that the seizures were “arbitrary” because sometimes the officers simply moved the weapons out of view; and that the officers should have kept better notes.

Given the chaos of trying to get to 4,700 homes, most of them badly flooded, and move as quickly as possible to save lives, none of those missteps seem unreasonable.

What was unreasonable was that, on Day 8 of the catastrophe, when stressed-out residents began to complain about what they incorrectly assumed were unwarranted seizures of legal firearms, the Prime Minister’s Office suddenly weighed in. “We expect that any firearms taken will be returned to their owners as soon as possible,” the PMO said. “We believe the RCMP should focus on more important tasks such as protecting lives and private property.”

This opportunistic armchair sniping was an insult to the RCMP officers working in High River. The Complaints Commission’s report makes it clear that the Mounties acted courageously. They made mistakes and overstepped, but not in ways that harmed anyone’s rights. And there is zero evidence that the officers acted in bad faith.

The Mounties don’t deserve rebuke. They deserve gratitude, and an apology from Ottawa.

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