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Commission counsel Roger Burrill, right, questions Jeff West, left, and Kevin Surette, retired RCMP staff sergeants who were critical incident commanders, as they provide testimony dealing with command post, operational communications centre and command decisions at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Dartmouth, N.S. on May 18. Gabriel Wortman, dressed as an RCMP officer and driving a replica police cruiser, murdered 22 people.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Kent Roach is a professor of law at the University of Toronto and the author of books including his latest, Canadian Policing: Why and How it Must Change.

Two years after the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history – when a gunman posing as a police officer killed 22 people and injured three others over the course of 13 hours – the Mass Casualty Commission in Nova Scotia is now investigating what went wrong.

But there is a lot that it does not seem to be paying attention to – most significantly, the question of whether the RCMP should continue to provide services to local communities, or contract policing, in rural Nova Scotia.

The commission has not yet explored material buried in some of its background documents that expressed the need for more staff in both the local RCMP detachment and the emergency response team that responded to the massacre. This raises the critical question: should the RCMP continue to be the police for rural parts of eight provinces and three territories?

Despite testimony that the emergency response team was five members down, the commission’s new foundational document on emergency response avoids these resourcing issues altogether. The team’s now-retired leader calling the RCMP a “broken organization.” Many would agree. Alas, there is no sense of this in the Commission’s public work product so far.

Contract policing employs 70 per cent of the RCMP’s nearly 20,000 Mounties, and takes up about 60 per cent of the force’s budget of more than $5-billion. Nova Scotia has the most robust mechanisms among all provinces in terms of local input into how RCMP detachments are run, yet even before the 2020 massacre, members of the local detachment committee were already frustrated and exploring whether the police service in the town of Truro, N.S., could provide better service policing than the RCMP. They were concerned then that the RCMP was chronically understaffed. If contract policing is not working in Nova Scotia, it is likely not working elsewhere.

The RCMP’s communication systems were not adequate and hindered the Force’s response; at the time, they did not permit encrypted communication with the Truro police nor the federal helicopter that was eventually used. In any event, the RCMP called in re-enforcements from its J-Division in New Brunswick, not from nearby Truro.

Last year, a federal Parliamentary committee on systemic racism in policing recommended the end of RCMP contract policing. Critics have said that contract policing may devote resources away from the RCMP’s federal policing mandate, which includes such matters as national security, money laundering, cybercrime and protective policing. And in January, Ottawa promised to undertake a review.

The RCMP and its union may rightly reply that Alberta’s recent effort to create a provincial police force garnered little support. But the focus there was simply on costs. The Mounties’ union defended contract policing largely on the basis that the federal government picks up 30 per cent of the contract-policing tab.

B.C. has more recently taken a deeper approach that focuses on policing quality. Its April report focused on the benefits of local governance of the police, tiered policing including unarmed community safety officers, and integration with other social and health services. It also observed that the RCMP was not subject to the same police complaints regime as other police services in the province, and expressed concerns about the adequacy of the RCMP system.

The RCMP is the antithesis of the model of local community-driven policing, patterned after Robert Peel’s Bobbies in London. It remains a colonial and militaristic force right down to the red serge. If it hopes to change, it should close its training boot camp at Depot Division where Métis leader Louis Riel was hanged in 1885, and replace it with a modern policing college.

Change is also urgently required in Nunavut, where there is a special need to integrate policing with a broader range of community services and where Indigenous people are violently overpoliced yet under-protected. Expanding Indigenous police services should be part of the solution.

Of course, RCMP contract policing cannot change overnight. Federal money spent on contract policing should gradually be diverted to allow the RCMP to play a more specialized role with respect to matters such as emergency response and complex investigations and to facilitate local policing when supported by local communities. Such a staged retreat could improve the RCMP and make them more like the FBI. It could also make new provincial, local and Indigenous police services more responsive to local concerns and more adept at working with other community services.

The days of fungible Mounties who could police in Nunavut, rural Nova Scotia and Surrey – a city now starting its own police service – may be numbered. In their place, we need more specialized Mounties and more locally responsive police.

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