As shells rained down over the former Yugoslovia in 1993, a small group of RCMP officers and Polish soldiers were hunkered down in a bunker, the level of stress increasing with every nearby blast. A police officer in her late 20s at the time, Brenda Lucki, started humming the tune of Jeopardy!, before leading an improvised version of the answer-and-question game to calm everyone’s nerves.
The Mountie who impressed her colleagues with her cool demeanour that day starts a new job on Monday – as the first female permanent leader of the RCMP.
Her path to the top of Canada’s national police force can only be called unconventional, and it comes at a time when the embattled organization is in need of a fresh start. The immediate challenges facing Commissioner Lucki are numerous and varied, including improving morale, bringing in increased civilian oversight, overhauling the investigation of harassment complaints and fostering a new approach to policing in aboriginal communities.
But as an assistant commissioner who was two ranks removed from the top job, she was nowhere near the list of favoured candidates when Bob Paulson retired last year.
Still, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanted the appointment to signal the birth of a new RCMP that is more representative of the public it serves. As he looked at the top five candidates for the job, Mr. Trudeau specifically asked how they broke with the RCMP’s past, said Frank McKenna, the former New Brunswick premier who chaired the selection panel.
“In my conversations with the Prime Minister, one of the issues that he would raise about candidates was whether they would represent real change. In her case, more than most, it’s fair to say that she would represent change,” Mr. McKenna said.
To make sure the new Commissioner knows what is expected of her, the government has been preparing a mandate letter listing the goals that she needs to meet in coming years. Such a letter is usually reserved for ministers, but the federal government wants to lay out exactly what Canadians can expect of their new top cop.
Commissioner Lucki, who was born in Edmonton, was a 20-year-old heading to law school in Alberta when she learned in 1986 that she had been accepted in the RCMP. Women had been allowed to wear the red serge for only 11 years at the time, and all leadership positions were held by men, a situation that persisted until Bev Busson became an assistant commissioner in 1998.
Telling her story to the Grande Prairie Daily Herald-Tribune a few years ago, Commissioner Lucki said that one of her goals was to work across Canada. The RCMP granted her wish and more, giving her postings over the years in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the former Yugoslavia.
According to current and former colleagues, Commissioner Lucki is a cop’s cop who has an innate ability to connect with the rank and file.
“She is someone that the members and employees can really relate to. I cannot think of anyone who would be intimidated to speak to her,” said retired deputy commissioner Marianne Ryan, one of her former superiors who is now the Alberta ombudsman. “In some organizations, there is the top brass and people won’t walk up and talk to that person. That is not the case with Brenda.”
In my conversations with the Prime Minister, one of the issues that he would raise about candidates was whether they would represent real change. In her case, more than most, it’s fair to say that she would represent change.— Frank McKenna
Commissioner Lucki started standing out in the RCMP in the early 1990s when she spent three years working undercover at the Montreal International Currency Center, a fake business established to catch money launderers. Operating the storefront currency exchange counter in the city’s downtown core, she carried duffle bags of cash of various currencies, with the delicate task of finding out more about her criminal clientele.
“As an undercover operator, she needed to adapt to a changing environment. You wouldn’t know who would show up, so she needed to talk to people to secure as much information as possible, without raising suspicion,” said Pierre-Yves Bourduas, a retired deputy commissioner who was her superior during a portion of Operation Compote.
Her subsequent posting in Plaski, in present-day Croatia, confirmed Commissioner Lucki’s unique brand of cool and humour. Deployed without weapons or bullet-proof vests, a trio of RCMP officers tried to bring a semblance of law and order to the area amid the chaos. A Globe and Mail story from 1993 described Commissioner Lucki driving a police jeep through an artillery bombardment to take evacuees to a Polish army battalion headquarters. A house was hit as she drove past it and three shells hit the road within 50 metres of her vehicle.
In a recent interview, former Mountie Bill Eubank said Commissioner Lucki was an oddity in the war zone where soldiers and police officers from other countries were not used to receiving orders from a woman.
“She would assign patrol routes and vehicles to them, and then they would come to me to ask what I wanted them to do,” Mr. Eubank said. “It was really frustrating for her.”
Back in Canada, there was no stopping her rise through the ranks, including a posting in Manitoba where she was honoured for her efforts at improving relations with First Nations. Mr. Paulson twice promoted his eventual successor, once as a district commander in northwestern Alberta and then as the commanding officer of Depot in Saskatchewan, where new recruits are formed.
There is a common perception in Ottawa that the RCMP is stuck in the past, which has led to constant calls for change in the organization. Mr. Paulson said the priority is ensuring that everyone in the force showcases an increased deference to the communities that they serve.
“What we do is important to Canadians. What is more important is how we do it and how they understand what we do,” he said.
Commissioner Lucki has not given media interviews since her appointment was announced last month. In recent days, she has been looking for a house in Ottawa for herself, her spouse Ray Gauthier, who is a retired RCMP staff sergeant, as well as their dog Kira and their cat Squawky.
While she officially becomes Commissioner on April 16, the “change of command” ceremony that will confirm the appointment is expected to take place in June.
With a report from Colin Freeze