The town hall in Wolfville, N.S., could not be closer to the community’s RCMP station: the two ivy-covered buildings sit on the same plot of land and share a wall. But Mayor Wendy Donovan says the police officers who come and go are strangers.
“We don’t know them, they don’t know us,” Ms. Donovan said. “What we need is somebody who walks the street, who knows the mayor and the mayor knows, and who people recognize as somebody embedded in our town.”
Staff shortages, lack of local knowledge and officers with little to no engagement with communities are long-standing, Canada-wide problems for the RCMP, who police most of rural Nova Scotia under contract with the provincial government. Those issues have bubbled to the surface in recent weeks, as communities around the province absorb the recommendations in the Mass Casualty Commission’s final report.
The independent commission, which released its report on March 30, studied the policing failures that allowed a deranged gunman to kill 22 people in rural Nova Scotia over the course of 13 hours in April, 2020. The commission found that the Mounties had ignored community concerns about the gunman’s violence and unlawful possession of firearms.
The report documents many shortcomings in the RCMP’s organizational response to the mass shooting, and it recommends that the province rethink its relationship with the Mounties before its contract with them, known as the Provincial Police Services Agreement, expires in 2032.
Some municipalities in Nova Scotia already have their own police forces, which they pay for directly. The majority subcontract RCMP officers through the province. The federal government subsidizes 30 per cent of the cost, and the remaining bill is unevenly split between the province (26 per cent) and each municipality (44 per cent).
Wolfville is one of five municipalities in Nova Scotia that, even before the release of the report, were reviewing whether they wanted to continue their relationships with the RCMP. The town recently hit a population milestone that gives it options for policing: it can sidestep the province and negotiate directly with the RCMP, or set up its own stand-alone force.
Local councillors in another municipality, Cumberland County, where four people were killed during the mass shooting, unanimously voted last week to launch a request for proposals, seeking bids from other police services to replace the RCMP. The local police force in the nearby town of Amherst is considered a potential bidder. The Mounties could also bid to maintain the status quo.
The move followed a provincial request to reduce the number of RCMP officers in the county – cause for concern in a community where residents have demanded faster response times and higher visibility from police.
“The community spoke quite loudly,” said Cumberland Mayor Murray Scott, a former provincial justice minister. “Not doing anything was not an option.”
Prior to entering politics, Mr. Scott spent 20 years as a municipal police officer in Moncton and in the town of Springhill. He experienced first-hand the benefits of local policing, which he said are lost when the RCMP, a national organization, is in charge. “You have to know the community and the community has to know you,” he said.
Provincial contracts with the RCMP have been scrutinized in British Columbia and Alberta, and in some municipalities in New Brunswick. The New Brunswick town of Carleton North is awaiting ministerial approval for a plan to replace the RCMP with a homegrown municipal police force. Residents have expressed concerns about a lack of police resources, presence and accountability. “The system is broken, especially in rural New Brunswick,” Mayor Andrew Harvey said.
The move has led to renewed calls for the creation of a provincial police force, but New Brunswick Public Safety Minister Kris Austin said in a statement that this isn’t feasible. He cited the costs of making the change, and said implementing it could take as long as a decade.
What lessons can be drawn from the months-long Nova Scotia mass shooting inquiry?
The same structural problems that haunt the RCMP in rural areas around the country – inadequate resourcing and lack of community knowledge among them – hampered the police response to the mass shooting, the Mass Casualty Commission found.
On the night the killings began, the local Bible Hill RCMP detachment had only four officers on staff, despite an allocation of six. A helicopter wasn’t immediately available. And police didn’t have location tracking on their cellphones to help them find each other during the chaotic response, despite a national directive that calls for them to have it. Officers had limited knowledge of Portapique, where the killings began, even though they had lived for some time in the surrounding municipality of Colchester County.
Colchester County is also reviewing whether or not to continue contracting RCMP services. Its mayor, Christine Blair, said people want a police force that stations officers locally, rather than at a district office in Bible Hill, which is 40 minutes away. “We need that. We have to have that,” Ms. Blair said. “Our community is still traumatized.”
Since the commission released its report calling for Nova Scotia to re-evaluate its contract with the RCMP, the province has launched a team to implement and advise on potential changes. But the provincial government has not yet hinted publicly at a preferred course of action.
“It is much too early to predict what a review of policing models will recommend for Nova Scotia,” provincial Justice Minister Brad Johns said in a statement. “Government is carefully considering the final report and all the recommendations so we can move forward in a way that honours the families, survivors and communities.”
Robin Percival, a spokesperson for the Nova Scotia RCMP, said the force respects any decision by the province, towns or municipalities to review their policing needs and priorities.
“We look forward to any opportunity to present Nova Scotians, and elected officials, with an overview of the high-quality policing services that we provide to promote public safety,” Ms. Percival said.
She added that the RCMP continues to modernize and evolve its policing model to meet the expectations of Canadians. “We have identified a number of areas since the mass casualty to address and we began making changes, which we will continue to do,” she said.
The commission’s final report also made a sweeping recommendation that the federal government review the RCMP’s priorities and consider reconfiguring the force so that it retains only the tasks that are suitable to federal policing. The RCMP’s other responsibilities would be assigned to other police agencies, possibly new ones.
Jim Mitchell, an adjunct professor at Carleton University and former assistant secretary to the federal cabinet, advocated for such a structure in a February policy paper he co-wrote. The paper calls for an end to RCMP contract policing.
“We think the RCMP should focus on what it really can only do, and that is federal policing,” he said, meaning policing of national threats to public safety. “We don’t believe that it should be doing provincial policing or local policing.”
Dr. Mitchell said Nova Scotia and the other Maritime provinces should consider a regional police force, which would provide better local knowledge, continuity and responsiveness to provincial priorities. “That may be a big pill to swallow,” he said. “But you could tailor such an arrangement much better to suit the needs of the individual province or community.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said provincial contracts with the RCMP are under review in British Columbia and Alberta and in some municipalities in New Brunswick.