Paul Garside is a partner with Vidocq Group, a Montreal-based global private investigation firm, and former inspector with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, having served in New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Quebec.
For nearly three decades, I was a Mountie and proud to be one, doing front-line policing in the Maritimes, training RCMP recruits at its Academy in the Prairies, and then leading federal financial crime investigations as a commissioned officer in Quebec. Through these postings, I became steeped in the lore of this historic organization and its trademark red serge. Whether it was just a matter of fictional embellishment, or the mythos around a team of equals who are willing to do whatever is needed, the RCMP’s iconic slogan felt true: we always got our man.
But what I discovered over my many years of Mountie life was that the RCMP, day to day, is far more complex than all that. It’s an organization composed mainly of intelligent, hard-working, dedicated people, working together as any agency of human beings does. Its members’ struggles tend to stem more from the internal organizational dysfunction than they do with the many intrinsic challenges of policing. Indeed, when RCMP members do well – and they often do – it is largely in spite, not because, of the complex structure and systems they work with.
These internal barriers must be also considered in the context of the tragic incidents involving front-line RCMP officers from coast to coast to coast in recent months. In New Brunswick, Rodney Levi, a member of the Metepenagiag First Nation, was shot to death by an RCMP officer. In Kelowna, B.C., video emerged of nursing student Mona Wang being dragged out of her suite and pinned to the ground by the head after a wellness check. In Fort McMurray, Alta., Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam alleged that he was beaten during a violent arrest; charges against him were later dropped. And in Kinngait, Nunavut, an apparently intoxicated Inuk man was knocked down by a moving RCMP vehicle; when he was put in jail, he was beaten by a cellmate. The May, 2020, release of an internal federal government memo warning that local RCMP services are unsustainable was just one more addition to the years-old piles of reports highlighting the RCMP’s struggles around leadership, recruitment, harassment, officer mental health, staffing shortages, labour code violations and deficient federal policing.
These and other incidents across the border have spurred movements to defund police. While cutting police budgets is not a cure-all for policing ills, the growing rumbling reflects, in part, a broader problem: As the costs of policing, police roles and structures rise, Canadians are less and less clear about the tangible return they receive from an agency that now budgets more than $3-billion in taxpayer money for its annual operations.
The RCMP is home to some of the best officers in the world, and the agency can be well-suited for the task of front-line community-based policing. But to do that job well, there must be a new vision of what a federal police force can be – one that challenges the need for contract policing, and does away with the mythology around the RCMP that keeps it lodged firmly in the past.
Never mind that the RCMP’s “glory days” also included officer desertions and delinquent human behaviour, or that the organization repressed labour unions and Indigenous people. Its origin story – that it was founded in 1873 as the North-West Mounted Police, when it was technically formed in 1920 – overshadows the history and value of provincial police agencies that existed before it, such as the British Columbia Provincial Police and Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. The RCMP’s ascension was locked in by the Great Depression, which prompted all the provinces but Ontario, Quebec and part of Newfoundland to disband their provincial forces in favour of RCMP policing, with the federal government offering to pay a significant portion of the policing cost for jurisdictions that made the switch. This bargain-priced policing model, referred to today as contract policing, now comprises the vast majority of the RCMP’s work.
Over time, the Mounties developed their own identity and culture. Unlike many police forces, RCMP officers have significant independence in how they respond to and follow up with calls. The RCMP’s paramilitary structure and its substantial pan-Canadian membership allow it to effectively manage protection for large events, such as political summits or the Olympics. As a national force, the RCMP has also become well-placed to tackle complex federal investigations into organized crime or international fraud.
But policing has grown more complicated and more costly over the years. Low salaries that once made the job comparable to a religious vocation steadily increased. Crimes became more complicated, and under-the-radar federal investigations allowed RCMP leaders to be less accountable for its production in that sphere. All the while, the RCMP became less effective – not because of its individual members, but due to long-standing structural problems, staff scarcity and a lack of leadership. And so, its generations-old philosophy persists: police are police, a crime is a crime, officers can do any work assigned, and it all can be accomplished with the same heavy paramilitary rank-and-pay system.
The RCMP’s preponderant contract-policing role affirms these realities. It principally recruits and trains members for front-line roles, making federal policing an afterthought. It also means management philosophy is largely propelled by an entrenched culture and front-line mentality, which focuses on day-to-day emergency responses rather than reflection on what a federal national policing service should actually do. The slow work of federal investigators is constantly undermined as a result: Investigators are shuffled between sections or out to contract-policing positions, just as soldiers are moved from posting to posting. And because transfers are seen as stepping stones to promotions, the skills required for federal investigations are difficult to cultivate. In 2003, specialized federal fraud units were established to try to address the issue, but they were doomed from the start; by being included in the broader RCMP structure, their budgets and personnel were gradually redirected elsewhere.
Systemic aberrations around how officers are paid, however, might be the best way to spur necessary transformation. Today, some contract-policing RCMP officers living in rural towns or without postsecondary education earn the same pay and benefits as RCMP federal investigators with higher education and niche expertise. While RCMP salaries are also presently on the lower end for large police forces in Canada because of federal budget restraint, front-line Mounties now typically earn roughly double the average Canadian salary and significantly more than the median Canadian total family income.
A nascent union might also accelerate the RCMP’s skewed labour costs, making it far tougher to operate the force with the lower police-to-population ratios and anemic staffing levels that have historically been used to keep the bills low, and can be a threat to officers’ mental and physical health, as well as the public’s safety. The collision of new union-driven compensation and minimum-resource agreements against provinces and municipalities unwilling to foot that bill might just eventually force Ottawa’s hand.
Major reform is the only way to rebuild a once-proud RCMP federal policing component, because the RCMP is simply incapable of fixing itself from within. Too many of its current leaders self-identify with the long-ingrained culture and lore. If Canada wants a truly effective federal police force, it should reconsider providing uniformed policing; that service should gradually return to the provinces, as they would benefit from police compensation better aligned with the costs of living in specific jurisdictions. The RCMP needs instead to attract, train and retain police officers for federal roles.
RCMP management will certainly continue to defend the current model, citing the advantages of the sheer number of troops, mobility, centralized training, better cross-country communication and specialized unit sharing. However, some of these same alleged advantages may in fact hinder its effectiveness. Such scale means that recruiting and training processes are generic or unspecialized. The ability to constantly move around large numbers of police officers thwarts the human-resource concentration needed to develop vital investigative expertise. And communication, efficiency and accountability often decrease when government structures and ensuing layers of supervision grow.
To be sure, it will be hard to move away from the RCMP’s history, culture and ceremony, all of which are symbolized by that red serge. But emotion must not obstruct operational efficiency and RCMP renewal is urgently needed – either now through courageous leadership or, more dramatically, in a not-too-distant future where provinces and municipalities decide they can no longer afford contract policing.
The federal government must break the logjam of trying to serve its myriad masters and do what is best for the RCMP. And if it doesn’t do it now, the RCMP risks clinging to the albatross of its past – and that will only make it harder for it to live up to the mythos that the RCMP always gets its man.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.