Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Terrorism investigations tax RCMP's ability to fight Canada's organized crime

Michael Zehaf Bibeau is shown carrying a gun while running towards Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2014, in a still taken from video surveillance in this handout photo.


The number of RCMP wiretaps on organized-crime groups is plummeting sharply as the force shifts its detectives to the fight against terrorism, according to statistics analyzed by The Globe and Mail.

In its federal policing role, the RCMP essentially has two major business lines – chasing mobsters and chasing terrorists. The priority the Mounties give to each of the two files has always been an issue, but the balance clearly shifted after the attack on Parliament Hill two years ago.

The RCMP has moved hundreds of officers from organized-crime probes to terrorism investigations in a bid to track suspected sympathizers of the Islamic State. This may come at a cost to other important RCMP missions, such as stopping human trafficking, getting guns off the street and curbing trade in illicit drugs such as fentanyl.

Story continues below advertisement

Related: Guilty pleas end risk of revealing RCMP surveillance technology

Related: Surveillance device used in prison sets off police probe

Related: RCMP fight to keep lid on high-tech investigation tool

A spokeswoman for the police force does not dispute that a significant shift has taken place.

"The decrease in RCMP wiretap applications for serious and organized-crime investigations in the past year can partially be attributed to the shifting of a number of federal-policing resources to national-security criminal investigations," Corporal Annie Delisle said in an e-mailed response to Globe questions.

Her e-mail added that the RCMP "prioritizes its investigations based on threat and risk to public safety and remains committed to fighting organized crime."

Public Safety Canada, the bureaucracy that oversees the Mounties, is legally obliged to release an annual electronic-surveillance report.

Story continues below advertisement

In a typical year, the Mounties and their partner agencies usually seek approval for more than 100 wiretap applications from federal Crown attorneys, before bringing these bids to criminal-court judges for final approval.

The Public Safety Canada annual report for 2015, released this month, shows that 67 such applications were made.

This number does not necessarily mean police surveillance is declining. Police can pack scores of suspects and potential charges into a single wiretap application.

The Public Safety Canada report says the overall number of people being wiretapped by police is not changing much from year to year.

Yet the focus of police investigations is clearly shifting.

In 2011, police sought wiretaps in hopes of laying charges for 82 Criminal Code offences that explicitly had to do with organized-crime. Only six such charges were contemplated in 2015.

Story continues below advertisement

Half of all wiretap applications still involve drug cases, yet the number of drug charges being pursued has plummeted.

In 2011, federal police were seeking wiretap warrants involving only three terrorism charges. In 2014, police were hoping to lay 97 terrorism charges. In 2015, that number was 68.

The Public Safety Canada electronic surveillance report is preliminary and the 2015 numbers may increase because police do not have to disclose data about all their investigations right away. Not every wiretap warrant of leads to an arrest or criminal charge.

The pivot point was Oct. 22, 2014. That was the day Michael Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Parliament Hill's Centre Block with a rifle, after killing a Canadian Forces soldier. Two days before, a man ran over a Canadian Forces soldier in Quebec.

Both attackers were supporters of the Islamic State terrorism group and were shot dead by police. At the time, Parliament had just voted to send Canadian Forces warplanes overseas to bomb Islamic State fighters.

Two years later, the RCMP is still focused on terrorism.

"We continue to transfer people out of other areas into counter-terrorism investigations," RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson told a Parliamentary committee earlier this month. "We've taken our investigative resources from areas of organized crime and financial integrity work," he added.

The RCMP says another reason for the declining number of wiretap applications is that suspects are now using encryption software to shield their digital communications from surveillance.

"Traditional criminality, like terrorism, like organized crime, like child exploitation, like fraud, is being advanced, supported and accelerated by the availability of these commercial encryption programs," Mr. Paulson says.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale is canvassing Canadians on whether police need new powers.

Not so long ago, the RCMP was boasting of its surveillance prowess. In 2014, detectives held a press conference announcing they had curbed a Montreal gang war, arresting more than 30 mobsters after decoding more than a million secure messages.

Court records in the case revealed the RCMP used so-called "Stingray" machines that track suspects by indiscriminately catching smartphone signals in a given area. Police had also sought BlackBerry's help to store the suspects' secured communications so authorities could crack them later.

Such modern surveillance methods go largely unmentioned in Public Safety Canada's annual reports, which are a creature of 1970s-era laws that focus only on conventional police wiretapping powers.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to