A Saskatchewan farmer shot and killed Colten Boushie during an altercation in the summer of 2016. A jury acquitted the farmer of murder and manslaughter, but Mr. Boushie’s family lodged a complaint with the RCMP about its investigation of the case. Among the questions were the handling of evidence and the element of race.
The RCMP handed the family a letter of disposition, concluding everything had been by the book. The family then took its concerns to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC). This is the force’s oversight body – but its mission of independent oversight is constrained by the tightly scripted legislative bounds it works under.
In March, 2018, the CRCC started its Boushie investigation. It sought to assess whether the RCMP’s handling of the case had been reasonable. It also looked at the factor of race; Mr. Boushie was Indigenous. Last January, the CRCC filed its report, including recommendations for change. What are they? We don’t know. The report won’t be made public until the RCMP responds. That was supposed to happen by mid-July.
It is almost four months past deadline. The RCMP has not yet responded.
This is not unusual. The RCMP continually resists the civilian oversight it is supposed to be subject to. Civilian police oversight, starting with the RCMP, but also for many provincial and municipal police forces, is often hindered by the fact that oversight bodies have too little power.
Real change is up to legislators. In the case of the RCMP, that means Parliament.
In July, CRCC chair Michelaine Lahaie appeared before the House of Commons public safety committee that was looking at systemic racism in policing. Ms. Lahaie, a long-time Canadian Armed Forces commander, became CRCC chair in early 2019. She has improved the CRCC’s transparency. There are more public summaries of complaint decisions than the few released before her appointment, but they are still more perfunctory than detailed. That’s in part because Ms. Lahaie and the commission are restricted in what they can do.
At committee, she cited one glaring example: By law, the RCMP has to respond to CRCC reports – but there are no statutory deadlines. It takes, on average, 17 months for the RCMP to answer. Several responses have taken more than three years. As the law is now written, that’s just fine. “This is unacceptable in any system where accountability is critical,” said Ms. Lahaie. No kidding.
The Boushie case, where the RCMP has not responded for almost 10 months, and counting, fits the pattern.
The urgency for change, and its obvious necessity, is greater than ever. In Canada, police in many jurisdictions investigate themselves, secrecy is generally the norm, and bad cops are too rarely fired. It’s a very good thing that the CRCC exists to oversee the RCMP. The problem is that it’s a bit toothless.
Ottawa twice tried to reform RCMP oversight in the past two years, but both bills fell short of what is really needed, and in any case, both died on the order paper. One positive idea was to bring the Canada Border Services Agency under civilian review. In general, however, the proposed reforms were too modest.
In September’s Throne Speech, the Liberals promised “enhanced civilian oversight of our law enforcement agencies, including the RCMP.” If the Trudeau government is serious, it has to be more ambitious than previous attempts. One important step is oversight of Border Services. The other is bolstering RCMP supervision.
At committee last summer, Ms. Lahaie presented a clear template for reform. There must be hard deadlines for RCMP responses to the CRCC. Public outreach should become part of the CRCC’s mission, because the current system is opaque and needs to build public trust. Most importantly, she suggested the RCMP be held accountable for instituting change. As things now stand, recommendations to the RCMP disappear into a black box. The CRCC called for detailed annual reports from the force – and Border Services – about how they have responded to, and changed because of, CRCC reviews. Finally, it’s about money. Civilian oversight can’t be robust unless there’s enough money for enough staff.
In sum, what’s needed is more money for oversight, and more power for the overseers. Both will go a long way to ensuring that the RCMP is always serving and protecting the public, and worthy of the public’s trust.
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