Ian Scott is the former director of Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit and author of Issues in Civilian Oversight of Policing in Canada. Kent Roach is the Prichard Wilson Chair in Law and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, and served on the Council of Canadian Academies expert panel on policing in Indigenous communities.
Canadians have been sickened by the RCMP dash-cam video of the violent arrest of Chief Allan Adam. Less is known about the police killings in New Brunswick of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi; the deaths of these two Indigenous people, however, raise suspicions.
More footage of RCMP use of force is tragically inevitable. If the RCMP are to continue their front-line policing work across eight provinces and three territories, there must be national standards for oversight of its use of force, and fundamental reforms to its governance and complaints process.
In some provinces, the RCMP has entered into a protocol with the provincial government to permit its independent investigative agency to conduct these investigations. But in New Brunswick, it has not. Thirty years after the first independent investigator of the police was created in Ontario, New Brunswick still lacks one. That’s why Quebec’s Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes is conducting the two homicide investigations.
How much time was lost in New Brunswick, in the critical hours and days after a police killing, while Quebec investigators were called in? Even that significant time pales compared with what would happen if a serious incident occurred in, say, Nunavik, where the RCMP relies upon the Ottawa Police Service.
In the case of Chief Adam, the RCMP cleared the officers of any misconduct in his arrest. There was then a three-month delay in referring the matter to the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), to which neither Chief Adam or his lawyer could complain directly, as its mandate can only be invoked when the involved police service notifies Alberta’s director of law enforcement.
Applying the rule of law to police use of force in a fair and independent manner is vitally important. In some respects, however, it treats the symptoms of underlying problems in policing and in the fractured relationships between police and Indigenous people and racialized groups.
The RCMP are governed today as they always have been: in a top-down manner, with the Minister of Public Safety giving direction to the RCMP Commissioner. The Minister can make these directives public, but often does not.
Governments are reluctant to tread on “police independence,” but this is not defined in the RCMP Act. It should be. It should be limited to specific investigative decisions, as numerous inquiries have recommended. The police must be subject to civilian and democratic control, including on use-of-force policies.
The RCMP Act also lacks a statutory mechanism for the input of local communities, even though it governs diverse communities from coast-to-coast-to-coast. Last year, an interim management advisory board was appointed, but its mandate is more about “corporate risk and responses to address them” than on police-community relations. But there is a need to train and fund community members so they do not simply defer to police professionals.
Some progress on this front has been made in Yukon, where there is a Police Council. Three of its seven members are from First Nations, and it works closely with Indigenous communities and service providers. It is not a coincidence that Yukon has seen needed policing innovations including the use of unarmed Indigenous service officers.
The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP also needs many more powers and resources. It only has a chair and a vice-chair, with just an $11-million budget to handle the thousands of complaints it receives about the RCMP each year from every part of the country, placing limits on the commission’s ability to conduct systemic reviews.
The commission has no powers to discipline officers or require policy changes. It sends the results of its investigations to the RCMP commissioner, who must then respond “as soon as feasible” before the non-binding report is even made public. There has been a long wait for public reports, including on high-profile complaints made by Colten Boushie’s family about how they were treated by the RCMP when Mr. Boushie was killed in 2016. A bill before Parliament to “strengthen” the commission does not address these problems.
The alleged assault of Chief Adams and the deaths of Ms. Moore and Mr. Levi demand accountability. The public is entitled to see the rule of law applied fairly to all. But these are symptoms of larger problems – including the RCMP’s ad-hoc and inadequate accountability mechanisms and its archaic and undemocratic form of governance.
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