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Federal law bars the Mounties from bargaining alongside the vast majority of Canada’s public service.FRED LUM/The Globe and Mail

Mounties have won the right to unionize, with far-reaching implications not only for the national police force but for the rights of organized labour throughout the country.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled 6-1 that the RCMP's internal system for negotiating workplace issues with elected representatives of officers is deeply unfair, and a violation of the right to freedom of association.

Keeping Mounties out of unions has been a century-long preoccupation of the Canadian government. From 1918 to 1974, Mounties were subject to immediate dismissal if they tried to join together to raise workplace issues. When federal public service workers formed a union in the late 1960s, the government refused to allow Mounties to be part of it, saying loyalty to their superiors rather than to fellow officers was vital. Today, officers in more than 250 police forces in Canada are unionized, and the Supreme Court said the Canadian government had not explained why the Mounties should be different.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and the now-retired Justice Louis LeBel made a ringing declaration in favour of freedom of association, saying that, like freedom of expression, conscience and religion, and peaceful assembly, it "protects rights fundamental to Canada's liberal democratic society," and is "essential to the development and maintenance of the vibrant civil society upon which our democracy rests."

The RCMP said it is reviewing the decision along with Treasury Board and the Justice Department. A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said that while the decision is under review, "we thank RCMP officers who work hard every day to keep Canadians and their communities safe."

The ruling does not necessarily mean the Mounties will be able to join any sort of union they please. The court suspended its ruling for a year to give the federal government time to create a new system for RCMP bargaining, if it wishes. But Mounties must be given enough choice and independence that they can "meaningfully" bargain collectively in a way that helps them meet management on more equal terms than they could do individually, the court said.

The decision was stunning in several respects. For the RCMP, which a government-sponsored task force has described as "broken," the ruling may give a new voice to rank-and-file officers, who launched the case in 2006.

"Right now, there are thousands of grievances in the RCMP that go nowhere, it's just a big round circle," said Rip Mills, a retired Mountie and spokesman for the Mounted Police Association of Ontario, one of two Mounties groups unrecognized by Ottawa that brought the court challenge. His members do not want the right to strike, but want an "equal voice" in negotiations, he added.

The court has strengthened the hand of organized labour by making it more difficult for governments to deny workers the right to organize. The ruling was also the second major organized-labour case in the past decade in which the Supreme Court expressly overturned a more conservative-minded precedent. Fifteen years ago, the court had rejected a similar, though narrower, challenge by the Mounties. And in 2007, the court declared a right to collective bargaining, rejecting its 1987 statement that there was no such right.

The majority of six, three of whom were appointed by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, reached back to the words of a liberal champion from the early years of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, chief justice Brian Dickson. He wrote in dissent in 1987 (joined by another arch-liberal, justice Bertha Wilson), that freedom of association offers the weak a way to challenge the strong.

"Association has always been the means through which political, cultural and racial minorities, religious groups and workers have sought to attain their purposes and fulfill their aspirations; it has enabled those who would otherwise be vulnerable and ineffective to meet on more equal terms the power and strength of those with whom their interests interact and, perhaps, conflict," Mr. Dickson wrote.

The dissenter, Harper appointee Justice Marshall Rothstein, called the majority ruling an example of improper judicial activism. Courts are not permitted to "identify a desired result and then search for a novel legal interpretation to bring that result about," he wrote. He also said that, despite the majority's claim that it was not prescribing a particular form of collective bargaining, its ruling "enshrines an adversarial model of labour relations as a Charter right."

University of British Columbia law professor Joel Bakan, who was a clerk to chief justice Dickson in 1987, said the ruling "strongly affirms the court's commitment to a constitutionalized right to bargain collectively, and to a model of labour relations that enables employees to meet the power of employers through their collective voice."

With a report from Daniel Leblanc.

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