One of Canada’s leading police critics now has an role as the national force’s official adviser. University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach is the new chair of the RCMP’s civilian Management Advisory Board, which was created four years ago but has been considered missing in action from recent public-policy debates about the Mounties.
“I wanted to try to do more than criticize for a time – try to make change or offer my advice from inside,” Prof. Roach told The Globe and Mail about his new role in giving constructive criticism to the RCMP’s commissioner.
Over the past 30 years, Prof. Roach has served as a legal expert to many prominent public inquiries into mistakes and misdeeds by Canadian law-enforcement agencies. He has also been a vocal critic of police forces.
He is the author of Canadian Policing: Why and How it Must Change, published by Irwin Law – one of five public policy books shortlisted for the Donner Prize, which will be awarded Thursday.
In his book, Prof. Roach implores Canadians to create stronger civilian oversight of their police forces. That’s especially true for the Mounties, whose 150-year history he characterizes as hidebound, colonialist and controversy-prone.
Now he is being asked to provide advice after being named in January as the new chair of the 13-member management advisory board. While very little attention has been paid so far to the federal government’s order-in-council that was publicly posted on Jan. 27, Prof. Roach’s appointment could lead to a significant change.
The current board has had a low profile over the past four years, even during controversies about systemic racism and disproportionate use of force against Black and Indigenous people. The Mounties’ missteps in 2020, when a mass shooter killed 22 people in Nova Scotia, have also prompted questions about whether the police force should be doing all the local policing it has taken on.
A public inquiry recently concluded that the force’s civilian advisers should not stay silent in such circumstances. “The work of the Management Advisory Board for the RCMP should adhere to the principles of transparency and democratic accountability,” reads the final report from the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission, which was released in March.
Will Prof. Roach change things? It seems likely. In his book, published last year, he was often blunt.
Police, he wrote, need to be “less violent and discriminatory, better governed, and more effective.” He devotes chapters to Canada’s nearly 20,000 Mounties and whether they can transcend their origins as a “colonial and paramilitary force that helped open up the West to settlers and [which] would subsequently play a role in enforcing attendance of Indigenous children in residential schools.”
The following interview with Prof. Roach has been condensed and edited.
What is the Management Advisory Board (MAB) and what is your role on it?
It was created in 2019 under the RCMP Act. I’m the chair of the board and when the board is up to a full complement, there will be 12 other people. The Mass Casualty Commission has criticized the MAB for not being transparent enough. Now we are trying our best to be more transparent.
You are the consummate policing outsider. And now you have an official role reviewing the RCMP?
I guess I was attracted to it because of my interest in policing reform and policing-government relations. I think we all see ourselves as independent from the RCMP on advice, on the modernization of the RCMP.
I also don’t presume everyone has read the book cover to cover. Presumably someone did do due diligence and looked at the book before I was appointed.
In your book, you bring together themes from dozens of public inquiries into Canadian policing going back to the 1990s. Why dust off all these reports?
I started [the book] after George Floyd’s murder. There’s a chapter about what happened in 2020.
It just seems to me this is a time of transition for policing in Canada.
I sat back and said I haven’t written a whole lot on policing. But it’s time to reflect on where policing has been, where it will be in the future. Hopefully the book will assist me with that. But of course [now] I have access to more information than I had as a scholar. And I’m very cognizant of that.
You write that the RCMP needs to start more civilian boards everywhere – such as the one that now exists, uniquely, in the Yukon.
It’s pretty clear in the book that there’s no one blueprint. That it really depends on a particular community, or a particular region.
But I think people need to know about what’s happening with the Yukon Police Council or just generally how contract policing is run.
It’s complex and not always very transparent. So I come back to a central issue I’ve had throughout my whole career about how do we govern the police?
You write that police forces such as the RCMP should do less direct policing of First Nations, and act as more of a complement to new, independent Indigenous police forces.
We’ve actually lost Indigenous police services over time. One of the possibilities is the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and Sûreté du Québec providing more specialized services.
Federal investigative work is something no other police force can do. Yet the RCMP has been often said to “cannibalize” that core function to feed its other roles.
There are concerns about lack of resources. The investigations need resources hardened. These are all challenges that I hope the MAB can look at.
You argue in the book that Canada has spent the past 30 years creating the optics of police accountability, but not actually achieving it.
There’s a lot more law concerning policing than there was when I started teaching 30 years ago. So one of the questions that I raise in the book is: Is this making policing better?
There are limits to the after-the-fact accountability. And we should be thinking about ways to avoid some of these problems in the first place.
As someone who has been on the outside, and a critic, I guess I’ve gotten to that stage in my career where I want to see if we can actually get to some solutions.