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The RCMP have a policy of eventual transparency, maybe.

Under this policy, the public might find out, months or years after an incident, the circumstances surrounding a particular police interaction – and sometimes only after a public inquiry (such as the one currently under way regarding the 2020 Nova Scotia massacre), or an access-to-information request (such as the one filed by CBC News about concerns over RCMP leaks during the February trucker convoy) or the conclusion of an investigation by an independent oversight body (which is usually invoked when a civilian dies or is seriously harmed in police custody).

When compared with other modern democracies, Canada is unique in this level of institutional opaqueness. Most operate with the understanding that governance and public safety information should be shared with the public by default, not at the discretion or on the whims of those in power. Indeed, in the U.S., police would never get away with saying the subject of a national manhunt simply “died” in police custody, without further explanation, though that’s precisely what the RCMP offered the public last week.

Myles Sanderson, the suspect in the recent mass-stabbing rampage across Saskatchewan, was apprehended by police around 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 7. There are photographs of him standing pinned up against a police vehicle, but some time thereafter, he was transported to hospital and died.

At a press conference just hours later, Saskatchewan RCMP Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore would say only that Mr. Sanderson “went into medical distress” before he died, which doesn’t actually tell the public anything since everyone experiences a state of medical distress before they die. Indeed, Assistant Commissioner Blackmore might well have offered that, “Mr. Sanderson experienced a state of dying, then died.” Despite being pressed by reporters, she would provide no more information about the circumstances of his death, citing the launch of a Saskatoon police and Serious Incident Response Team investigation into the matter. RCMP have since added that the results of Mr. Sanderson’s autopsy will not be made public.

No doubt there are some Canadians who are unbothered by the RCMP’s opacity on this issue. Mr. Sanderson is believed to have committed horrific acts, and surely some see his death as a good thing in that it spares the families of his victims the agony of a trial, and spares the state the cost of his incarceration (and it also eliminates the chance – however remote for a mass murderer – that he will once again be released from prison).

But police have a duty of care to those in their custody, even those who have committed brutal, violent crimes. We don’t give police discretion to decide who lives and who dies, and we don’t allow those who have been apprehended to take their own lives simply because it’s a cheaper and easier route than forcing them through the justice system. The public doesn’t yet know what happened in Mr. Sanderson’s case, but we do know that he was alive and standing at one moment, and dead the next. Somewhere in the process, police failed to uphold that duty of care, and the public deserves to know what happened.

It is likely that at some point in the future, the circumstances around Mr. Sanderson’s death will be publicly revealed. But Canadians should not be content to simply wait around and gratefully accept the morsels of information tossed our way if and when police decide to release them. Immediate transparency is the norm in other countries and should be here, too, with the onus on police to explain why, in exceptional cases, certain details must be withheld.

The explanation that the RCMP has trotted out in this case – that Saskatoon police must first investigate the matter – is a poor excuse: There is no trial to prejudice, and surely the professionals tasked to investigate Mr. Sanderson’s death will be able to do so whether or not the public is told, for example, that the suspect had visible wounds or appeared to be suffering from a drug overdose. Canadians are capable of understanding that preliminary details are just that, and that additional context or information may be revealed over the course of an investigation.

There are more practical reasons for immediate transparency as well. In the absence of fact, rumour and speculation take over. Details start to leak, and the families of the victims are left with even more questions. Police can build trust with communities through communication – sharing what they know – which is something RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki confessed to have learned in the aftermath of the 2020 Nova Scotia shooting. “We need to be more transparent,” she said, while testifying before the Mass Casualty Commission in August. It seems the RCMP might get around to that eventually – maybe – in the Saskatchewan case, too.

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