Sarah: Set foot in any Canadian gift shop and it’s awash red uniforms, Stetson hats, big boots. For nearly 150 years, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been a huge part of Canada’s national identity. But look closer, and you’ll see a massive top down organization rife with dysfunction. You’ll see lawsuit after lawsuit with claims of post traumatic stress disorder, sexual harassment, racial discrimination. Use of force has long been a problem, from the tasing death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport in 2007, to the beating of Chief Allan Adam outside a casino in Fort McMurray this spring. This week, the civilian interview and complaints commission for the RCMP released a statement saying they were concerned Mounties were using unreasonable force during wellness checks on people with mental distress. It all adds up to the RCMP facing something of a reckoning. Why couldn’t commissioner Brenda Lucki give a straight answer recently when asked if systemic racism exists? And why couldn’t the RCMP in Portapique, Nova Scotia stop a gunman obsessed with their image. I’m Sarah Boesveld, sitting in for Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Joining us today, we’re so lucky to have Jane Gerster who’s a national features reporter at Global News. Thanks for being here with us.
Jane: Thanks for having me.
Sarah: So as someone who’s looked very closely at the RCMP, how would you describe the roles, responsibility, structure of this whole outfit?
Jane: I would say the easiest way is actually to pretend we’re in the States for a second, and to think of the RCMP as the CIA, the FBI, Sheriff, and occasionally the Secret Service as well.
Sarah: Wow. That’s huge. That’s a massive umbrella.
Jane: They’re a pretty big organization. I mean, they’re national police force, but they operate in, you know, on First Nations, they operate in, you know, small town, Canada. They operate basically everywhere.
Sarah: I’m really interested and fascinated too, by some of the real structural issues as well. I’ve read in your reporting, and certainly gotten the sense, that there’s quite a top down structure. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Jane: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, the forest is pretty large, about over 30,000 people in total, of which 18,000 are actually dedicated like Red Serge Mounties. But they all answered Ottawa. So there’s the commissioner, and then you have deputy commissioners in sort of each province or each division. But everything gets answered up. So you can’t really– you know, you don’t have that same kind of flexibility as you might in another organization. Like everything has to be what the person above you approved, what the person above them approved, what the person above them approved. And so it’s very, very top-down, which is pretty common in a paramilitary organization, but a lot of experts have concerns about that type of organization in the 21st century.
Sarah: So, what have been the RCMP is most horrendous failings?
Jane: I mean, it depends. It really depends who you ask. Different people will quantify different things as failings, but I mean, we’ve had– there’s been a lot. And I mean, just like you’d have to separate it into an internal failing versus an external failing. So, I mean, you could look at, you know, cases where people say they’ve botched it, you could look at, you know, really getting into the nitty gritty of like, you know, the questioning of one individual victim of sexual assault, you know, or you can look at the many, many class actions and proposed class actions. I mean, just right now, we have a $600 million proposed class action over the Mounties treatment of Indigenous people in the North. And then you have another $600 million proposed class action over their handling of cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. So, you know, those are some of the ones that are really, I think, top of mind for a lot of people right now, given that there have been some Indigenous people killed during interactions with police on mental wellness checks. So that plus Portapique are the big things, I think, that are taking up a lot of people’s concerns right now.
Sarah: Yeah, and Portapique, speaking of proposed class actions, there’s one there too, right? And there was a lot of concern and outcry about the way that the RCMP locally responded, how long it took, the way that they notified the public. What really broke down there in terms of how the RCMP functions on a local level, given what you know about the structure and a lot of the ways that they operate?
Jane: Yeah, for sure. So, I mean, I would stress, like I am obviously not right in the thick of it in terms of their investigation into Portapique, and there’s a lot of people who have sort of come out and said, you know, we have concerns with how you did and didn’t use the emergency alert system, how you did and didn’t talk to other local police forces in the area. But if you’re going to take a step back for a second and just think about it in terms of structure, the RCMP moves people around a lot. Like with local police forces, like with Vancouver, you’d start there, you’d really get to know the community, you’d be in Vancouver your entire career. But that doesn’t really happen with the Mounties. Like you get bumped from place to place, sometimes you’re in like a really remote, rural community with people that don’t speak the same language as their first language with you, or you’re in communities that you just don’t know as well. So that’s kind of, I think, the first thing to remember in terms of how they might respond to something, is they don’t have that same sort of built up expertise in one area.
Sarah: Local knowledge, knowing the people, investing in the people, those relationships, so people trust you, right?
Jane: Yeah. And I think we’re seeing some of that come out right now in Surrey, as they have their very sort of complicated process of trying to remove the RCMP from the city and actually develop their own local police force. And that’s fraught. You could probably do a whole podcast just on that process. But I mean, I think it gives you a sense that not everyone is happy with the service that they’re getting from the RCMP. There’s been a lot of investigations and reports looking at how stretched thin they are, how we ask for too much of them at various levels, and how that all has a role to play in the quality of policing you get on the ground in a place like Portapique.
Sarah: And you mentioned Indigenous communities, which has a very deep history with the RCMP, right? Can you tell me first off, what has been that relationship? Like what has that relationship looked like lately, but also bring us back to the historic roots of this, the Mounties?
Jane: For sure. So I think, you have to go back.
Sarah: Yeah. All the way.
Jane: Yes. If you talk to you pretty much any historian in Canada whose focus is really on the creation of Canada as a nation, and sort of the frontier years, they will tell you that the reason the RCMP was created was to police Indigenous people. More specifically, you know, Canada knew if it wanted to be a viable nation, that it needed a railroad, that it needed to protect its board, that it needed settlement. But to do that, they had to deal with the so-called wild card of Indigenous people living on their lands that they’ve been living on for forever. And so that’s really where the force was born. It was, you know, they wanted people to go and move Indigenous people onto reserves and out of the way of the rail road. And, you know, to sort of clear the path for settlement. That’s kind of, sort of the beginning of the RCMP is specifically moving people off of their lands. And then over time they took on a role that involves picking up First Nations kids and taking them to residential school from their parents. So there really is a long history there. Like you can’t really separate the RCMP from Indigenous people. And I think, you know, that’s often what historians I’ve talked to for articles have kind of said, you know, you can’t just look at Indigenous people saying, “Hey, we don’t support the RCMP,” or “We have problematic relationships with the RCMP,” and treat it as a one off issue that can be settled with a meeting or a circle or a conversation, because really it goes back all the way to the reason the force was created in the first place.
Sarah: Yeah. The idea that they are kind of a tool of colonization, that colonization could not have happened without a structure, an institution like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Jane: Yes. I mean, in the beginning they were the Northwest Mounted Police, and then the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. So they’ve been through a couple of name changes, but the structure has stayed firm. And I think, there’s one historian at the University of Manitoba, Jocelyn Thorpe, who sort of says it really well in my mind, if you want to understand kind of every single– you know, many of the issues that are at play right now, with sort of trying to build a better relationship between the Mounties and Indigenous people, you have to understand that the whole system is based on this idea that some people matter more than others. So yeah, you can have good Mounties and good leaders, and they can come together and they can talk about it. But she says, you also have to really think about how much can actually be done if it’s the system itself that’s creating all of these ripple effects?
Sarah: And what are the ripple effects today? I mean, we just had the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls report come out last year, there was a case this spring where a chief was in an altercation with police, certainly the case out in New Brunswick where an Indigenous woman was killed on a mental health check. I just gave you all those examples, but I’m wondering if you could talk to me about some of that lasting discrimination, I guess, in some ways?
Jane: I think it really boils down to trust. You know, you mentioned the MMIWG inquiry, and in their final report, they actually said straight up, quote, “The RCMP have not proven to Canada that they are capable of holding themselves to account.” And I think that that’s where some of that lack of understanding comes into play is that, you know, there’s this whole long history of mistrust. The RCMP will be 150-years-old in 2023. And that’s 150 years in which their initial purpose was to police Indigenous people. Not to keep them safe, to police them. And I think that, I mean, I’m not Indigenous, so I can’t say exactly what it would take to get past that, but it’s not an easy fix. And I think most of the historians that I’ve spoken to really try to acknowledge when they talk about this, that whatever fixes are going to happen to the RCMP to actually make a difference, they have to account for more than a century of mistrust that’s been baked into the very creation of this organization.
Sarah: So you mentioned the RCMP’s failure to hold themselves accountable, as the inquiry report laid out. Can you tell me about what happened to Pierre Lemaitre, the former RCMP officer whose story threads through your investigative work?
Jane: Yeah, of course. So Pierre Lemaitre was an RCMP spokesperson. And he killed himself a few years ago. And it’s really, it’s quite heartbreaking. He was one of the first media spokespeople for the RCMP shortly after Robert Dziekanski was tasered and killed at the Vancouver airport in 2007. And so, he was the public face that was spun around the world, telling people this is what happened. The problem was that he wasn’t given the full facts. So as the facts started to emerge, it really made him look like he was intentionally covering for the RCMP. And that really took a toll on him. And his wife, Sheila, herself a former Mountie, actually sued the forest for making him what she called a scapegoat in the aftermath of the tasering. That lawsuit, which was settled, you know, it was sort of a precursor to a coroner’s inquest into his death. And this is really, I think, where you start to get a sense of how the RCMP structure can sort of hamper public conversations about what it does, because that coroner’s inquest, which was November, 2018, and which I went and I covered, they were really limited in what they could do. You know, like they can talk about PTSD and they can talk about better mental health supports, and they can make recommendations in that sense. But if you actually want to get into how the force is operating, who it’s accountable to, you know, which sort of aspects of its, you know, processes and structures need to be changed, you can’t do that anywhere, but the national level. Because even though the RCMP operates locally and provincially and nationally, it’s only accountable nationally. That’s the only place it answers to. And there’s Supreme court cases that have reinforced that. It makes it tricky to look at what’s actually happening. And this is something that more and more Mounties and ex Mounties, as they deal with their own problems with the force, their own battles over PTSD and mental health placements and that sort of stuff, it’s something they are kind of really trying to raise awareness about, as they push for accountability internally.
Sarah: Yeah. And the accountability also, of course, looks at sexual harassment and harassment of other kinds as well. You mentioned that they are only accountable federally, but who funds the federal government, but taxpayers? Your investigation last year found that more than $220 million had been spent over the past 20 years to address lawsuits, complaints, and other dysfunction. So why has that been completely ineffective? You know, why all that money spent and no real results?
Jane: Short answer is, I don’t know. The longer answer would involve a rabbit hole with a historian named Michael Dawson, who wrote a book called From Dime Novel to Disney, which is basically about the RCMP’s reputation. Because, I don’t know if you know that the RCMP is a symbol of national identity.
Sarah: I have heard and seen.
Jane: Yeah. So, if you look at like some old Stats Can surveys and stuff, you’ll see that actually, Canadians will rank, you know, the Charter, the flag, hockey, and the Mounties. The Mounties are higher than hockey, which was interesting. The first time I read that, I was like, Oh, interesting.
Sarah: I think that if you go to any gift shop in Canada, whether that’s in Banff, and Jasper, Alberta or downtown Toronto, I think you would see Mounties everywhere, right?
Jane: Oh, for sure. Like it’s everywhere. You know, like if you watch late night comedy shows and they’re trying to do a skit about Canada, the person’s wearing Red Serge, like nine times out of 10. The person’s got, you know, the Stetson, the Strathcona boots, you know, the look.
Sarah: So is it about– it’s protecting this image? Like, that’s why we can’t fix this? That seems absurd.
Jane: Well, basically in the early 1900s, anyone who really wants to know a ton about this should read Michael Dawson’s book. It’s got lots of pictures. It’s not too long, but it’s quite interesting. But basically he goes over the ways in which popular culture picked up this Mountie image in the early 1900s. And that became what we know. Disney bought rights to it for a time. Like there’s this–
Sarah: Hence the Disney and the title.
Jane: For sure. And the RCMP is very protective of its identity. So when I think about one of the first Sikh men who wanted to wear a turban, instead of a Stetson, the RCMP was going to allow it and they did allow it, but there was a Canadian survey. Like, there was just a public outcry nationwide about how he shouldn’t be allowed to wear anything but the Stetson, because that was the image.
Sarah: Wow, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You know, to some of what we’ve seen happening in Quebec, and that’s like national, national value, national property, and what does that even mean or look like in modern times, right?
Jane: Exactly. So I think the point that a lot of historians have tried to make is that to actually get to the root of some of these problems would require untangling, like first, you know, jurisdiction. Are we in BC or are we in Ontario? And how do we get this nationally? I mean, when CSIS was created and split apart from the RCMP, that was also a jurisdictional issue. Like there was a Quebec commission and there was a national commission and there was a court battle. So like you have to first untangle who has jurisdiction. And then you also have to deal with, this is a symbol of national identity. I mean, there was a commission, one of the first times the RCMP talked about unionization in the 1970s, and there was a commissioner who looked into this, and he actually did an interview with the Toronto Star, it was like 1974, where he said that he had been inundated with letters from Canadians telling him not to touch their force. Like to be very careful what he did. And so I think, you know, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of standalone RCMP story. Like it all sort of has these underpinnings that you have to grapple with. And I think that’s where fixing it gets really complicated. And, you know, that’s something a lot of the criminologists who really closely follow RCMP news, that’s what they sort of have to wrestle with constantly. You know, what’s the surface issue, and then what are all the things underneath that are impacting how we solve this?
Sarah: What’s so fascinating about all of this is that it’s really about power, influence, even when you talk about identity, and I’m thinking a lot about the defending the police conversations that we’re having as of late, that obviously activists in Black Lives Matter and Indigenous activists too have been calling for for a long time before the media caught attention. But it’s like, how do you dismantle something that has such a structure of, you know, often, top down, and power, and a lot of symbolic importance as well. And speaking of symbolic importance, I wanted to talk about Brenda Lucki and highlight the fact that she’s the first woman installed as RCMP commissioner. But now, you know, we’ve seen her, this spring, fumbling her response to questions about systemic racism and the response to the mass murder in Portapique. But there was so much show about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau installing her as the first woman. And so symbolism is so interesting and powerful, and does it actually translate to any kind of change? You know, can it possibly lead to that, right?
Jane: I mean, the symbolism is not nothing. So I’d first say that. Because I have way too many historians who are like, symbolism matters. It’s not nothing. But at the same time, it’s not everything. And I mean, the RCMP gets complicated, right? Because I mean, one of the big things that the force’s own civilian review and complaints commission highlighted in it’s 2017 report on workplace harassment, is the pervasiveness of these problems. To list off just a few, you have Mounties who won’t speak up for fear of repercussions, promotions driven by who you know rather than what you do, and a presumption that because an officer occupies a senior rank they automatically wield that power with skill and professionalism. So these are just a few of the things that, you know, that review found in 2017. And the thing is there is no, there’s no quick fix for that. You know, you don’t install one person at the head of a paramilitary organization, and bam they’re able to solve it. And I mean, we saw that. Because the RCMP has only ever had one civilian commissioner. And that was William Elliott. And he left in 2011 amid a bunch of bullying allegations and harassment allegations. You know, it was not a smooth tenure. And after he actually did an interview with The Globe and Mail where he said, I think the next person to take power should be someone who really knows the organization inside and out because they get a certain amount of respect. So.
Sarah: Well, that’s a catch-22 though, right? Cause if you’re overseeing something that needs fixing and reformation, if you just install somebody who’s part of that world and, you know, indoctrinated in that paramilitary style, it sounds like you’d just be chasing your own tail.
Jane: Well, that’s where the idea of a civilian oversight commission comes from.
Sarah: So what’s going on with civilian oversight that they have promised in light of some of the concerns that have been raised?
Jane: First off, it doesn’t exist in the RCMP. Not right now. It’s been something that’s been recommended for a very long time. Like after the RCMP’s pension fund scandal, which is, you know, I’m going back more than a decade here with the controversies, but David Brown did a report for the government and basically said, you cannot have a– like no company would accept a paramilitary organization in the 21st century. You need to look at civilian oversight. And that sort of got bumped around. Didn’t really go anywhere. Lots of people went on to recommend the same thing in reports following that, so we’ve had more than a decade now of reports saying you need civilian oversight. And in January, 2019, the government announced a civilian advisory board, which was very similar sounding, but not quite the same thing. Because that advisory board doesn’t, it doesn’t have the power to compel the RCMP to do anything. And if it gets into disagreements with Commissioner Lucki, it still goes back to the public safety minister to actually intervene. You know, they’re right now– like, I’ve spoken a lot with the head of that board, Richard Dicerni, he’s the chairperson. You know, and we’ve spoken a couple of times in the last year as sort of that board gets underway. But I mean, even just a couple of weeks ago, when I reached out to him to say like, Hey, we’re living through a reckoning over police use of force and racism right now. Where do you see this advisory board fitting? And he basically said, since that has more to do with police work than management and human resources, it’s not technically what the board is designed to do.
Sarah: Oh my gosh. The jurisdictional issues are just–
Jane: Yes. Yes. If you wanted to boil it all down, it would be jurisdictional issues, and image, and how do you grapple with that, in whatever specific problem you’re trying to deal with on any given day?
Sarah: So what would impactful reform of the RCMP look like? What would it meaningfully do?
Jane: It really depends on who you ask. There have been people who have advocated for removing the RCMP from contract policing. So taking them out of small towns and stuff. Letting those get back to having local or provincial forces, just because they think that our RCMP is stretched too thin. And then, you know, to quote Catherine Galliford, who was quite well known for when she went public with her allegations of sexual harassment in the force, she says, burn it down. So there’s a real range of, you know, limit their responsibilities, create a proper oversight board that has the power to compel them to action, you know, divvy it up into different organizations, start from scratch. And I mean, I know that “start from scratch” and “burn it down” sound very extreme. But I just want to stress that there is actually a precedent for that. The RCMP, or the Northwest Mounted Police, so the original iteration of the Mounties, was based on the Royal Irish Constabulary, which later became the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which was demilitarized at the beginning of this century. Specifically, as its own sort of act of reconciliation.
Sarah: Wow. It can be done. It has been done.
Jane: Yeah. And obviously, you know, things are different. Depends on the country, and their appetite, and their appetite for change. So a lot of people are in agreement that something needs to be fixed, but how exactly is where things get a bit more contentious.
Sarah: These are questions, huge questions that we’ll have to continue to grapple with. Thank you so much for joining us, Jane.
Jane: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Sarah: Jane Gerster is national features reporter at Global News. That was The Big Story. For more from us, you can visit our website, thebigstorypodcast.ca, and also follow us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. And you can write to us to let us know what you think or tell us what you think we should tackle in a future episode. The email address is email@example.com. I’m Sarah Boesveld, and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.
Back to top of page