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Majority of Parliament Hill security staff haven't had thorough background checks

A protection officer walks through Centre Block on Parliament Hill in 2014. Until 2015, the RCMP patrolled the grounds of the Hill, while the House and Senate security staff worked the inside the buildings.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A majority of the security personnel on Parliament Hill, some of whom are armed, have not had thorough background checks and routinely have access to sensitive information despite a lack of official clearance, federal officials say.

The situation applies to two groups of non-police officers employed by the Parliamentary Protective Service (PPS): protective officers who carry guns and work mostly inside parliamentary buildings, and detection specialists who screen vehicles and visitors before they enter secure areas on the Hill.

The PPS was created in 2015 to beef up security in the Parliamentary precinct eight months after a gunman killed a soldier and stormed Centre Block. It combined the former Senate and House of Commons Protection Services and the RCMP's Parliament Hill Security Unit with the RCMP in charge of the operation. However, government officials say most of the non-RCMP personnel in the PPS have not had screening equivalent to that of the RCMP officers.

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The RCMP, with intelligence-sharing agreements around the world, regularly shares findings about potential threats throughout the PPS. For example, the RCMP can provide intelligence to non-police officers that comes from the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), even though the recipients lack the necessary security clearance.

When PPS was created, the RCMP began to apply its own screening to all of the members of the new service. About 100 of the non-RCMP security workers received it. It includes fingerprint checks, financial inquiries, a loyalty assessment by Canada's spy agency and, in some cases, in-person interviews. Clearances are periodically reviewed.

However, the two unions representing officers who had worked for the House of Commons and Senate objected to the change, and it was stopped before all employees had gone through the screening, PPS spokeswoman Melissa Rusk said. It was replaced by a process called a site-access check.

As it stands, 56 per cent of the non-RCMP personnel were working on the Hill before 2015 and do not have any PPS security clearance, Ms. Rusk said. They were checked before their hiring, but they were not all carrying guns at the time and the clearances were not reviewed.

The remaining 44 per cent of the non-police PPS personnel either have the RCMP clearance or, more commonly, the site-access check.

Conducted by Senate administrators, this process goes through databases, including a check for criminal records, but it is not as thorough as an analysis that includes fingerprint checks. It also stops short of full financial checks that could reveal vulnerability to blackmail, or extended family checks that could expose other threats, sources said.

Ms. Rusk said a new security standard, which will be tougher than the site-access check and "will apply to all PPS employees," should be ready to be implemented by next year.

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However, a labour dispute over contract bargaining between the PPS and the three unions that represent its employees could stall the efforts. The dispute has been heating up in recent weeks. The PPS has disciplined staff for wearing lime-green ball caps to draw attention to the issues.

Roch Lapensée, whose union represents former House employees, said his members were all vetted and deemed to be trustworthy at the time of their hiring. He said the PPS has not consulted him about the new security screening, and criticized the RCMP for trying to impose its own standards on his members.

"We have been here for more than 100 years. We don't need to have the RCMP culture imposed upon us, we don't want it," said Mr. Lapensée, who is the president of the Security Services Employees Association.

House of Commons protection personnel and RCMP officers gunned down Michael Zehaf-Bibeau on Oct. 22, 2014, after he killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the War Memorial and stormed through Parliament's Centre Block.

The incident exposed security gaps in the symbolic heart of Canadian democracy, and tensions between the groups providing that security. A review of the event by the Ontario Provincial Police concluded that "the approach to the security and protection of Parliament Hill is highly inadequate."

Sources said the RCMP is concerned that it cannot act on some of the recommendations made after the terrorist attack, including enhancing security clearances to prevent "insider threats."

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Until the creation of the PPS in 2015, the RCMP patrolled the grounds of Parliament Hill, while the House and Senate security staff worked the inside the buildings.

Now, the RCMP is slowly replacing Mounties on the Hill in outdoor positions with PPS protective officers.

In the coming months, some of the RCMP-branded cars on the Hill will be replaced by six new vehicles in the colours of the PPS. Eight PPS officers have received extensive training and started working alongside Mounties in recent weeks on mobile response teams intended to be at the forefront in critical incidents.

In addition, the Mounties who screened all vehicles entering Parliament Hill since the terrorist attack have been replaced by non-RCMP detection specialists. The RCMP will also start to put more more PPS officers in "static positions" – on the roads on Parliament Hill and in front of buildings.

Officially, the changes are to make the best use of PPS's $65-million annual budget. In salary, training and overhead, it is estimated that filling security positions with RCMP officers costs about twice as much as using non-RCMP protective officers.

"We continue to look at the efficiency of our security posture and the optimization of our resources," Assistant Commissioner Mike Duheme, commanding officer of the RCMP's National Division, said in an interview. "This budget comes from taxpayers, and it's my duty to always be reviewing practices, look at who is doing what, to optimize our resources and to always be on the lookout for efficiencies."

The changes are considered a first step toward addressing concerns over the RCMP getting the overall responsibility for security on the Hill. A number of parliamentarians dislike the fact the RCMP, which reports to the executive branch of government rather than the legislative branch, is officially in charge of security in the country's legislative chambers.

"It is totally unacceptable that the Prime Minister controls the guns that are in Parliament," NDP MP David Christopherson said during a recent committee hearing.

In addition, relations are still tense between the three groups that were merged to form PPS, including complaints over the quality of each group's equipment, vehicles and rest areas.

The Security Services Employees Association complains that its members who carry weapons still lack the title "peace officer," which would grant them further powers of arrest and detention akin to their RCMP colleagues.

"The full transition cannot occur until the protective officers have the same rights and authorities as RCMP officers," Mr. Lapensée said. "We have been asking for the status of peace officer for over 20 years."

Mr. Lapensée argued that the transition from the RCMP officers to PPS personnel is too slow and does not go far enough. The new PPS vehicles will not have police lights and cannot be driven faster than normal speed limits, even in emergencies.

Mr. Lapensée said the speakers of the House and the Senate would have to approve new funding to speed up the transition, with increased budgets for training and new equipment.

"We would like things to move more quickly, but that would take more money," he said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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