There’s an old saw that says when you need a job done, give it to somebody who already has too much to do.

If this cliché were ever true, it is rarely applicable in the employment world of today, thanks to the increasing complexities thrown up by information technology, global interconnectedness, stricter accountability regimes, changing workplace environments and an evolving desire for a new work-life balance. Indeed, saddling our organizations and their employees with too many tasks – and not enough training to complete them – is a recipe for not getting things done or, worse, doing them very badly.

So why is it, then, that our country’s national police force is still being asked to fulfil an overwhelmingly wide mandate that is making it less effective, less responsible and less able to ensure public safety? While there may have been a time when the RCMP’s broad job description made sense, the realities of our evolving society make it imperative that the force’s role be redefined, with its current functions split up. We don’t need an RCMP that operates both as our federal police and the provincial force of eight provinces and three territories.

The most recent advocate for substantial change emerged from the pen of Michel Bastarache, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who wrote in a scalding report on compensation for RCMP employees experiencing harassment that the culture of the RCMP was toxic. It is, he argued, time that the government asks some hard questions about the structure and governance of Canada’s national police service.

One of those questions revolves around the matter of whether the force’s role is too heavily oriented toward a provincial policing function that is no longer appropriate for a critically important national organization like the RCMP. The current job description includes everything from municipal policing,  which includes large urban areas such as Surrey and Richmond, B.C. to provincial policing in eight of 10 provinces and three territories, plus providing services on hundreds of First Nations lands. Add responsibility for organized crime, terrorism, drugs, human smuggling, and forensic and other technical services provided to other agencies, and you get the idea.

Simply put, this enormous mandate makes it impossible for the RCMP to do everything that’s expected to ensure public security.

Another key issue that demands clarity is the matter of accountability. As a former deputy solicitor general and deputy minister of public security, I can tell you that in the eight provinces where the RCMP acts as a provincial force, it’s never clear where the lines of authority and accountability run. Indeed, one of the concerns raised in Bastarache’s report focused on the RCMP’s accountability in the wake of its leadership’s failure to deal with sexual harassment claims.

This lack of precision manifests itself in other ways as well, including in the 2020 tragedy in Nova Scotia in which 22 people were killed by a lone gunman. Questions have been raised over the immediate response to the rampage, while confusion reigned in the aftermath over which level of government, provincial or federal, should be responsible for the subsequent inquiry.

Sadly, experience suggests that the RCMP is a provincial force accountable to the provincial attorney general when that suits the interests of the divisional commander, and a federal force when the advantage tips the other way.

We hear, for example, of officers who have spent years in rural communities being asked to work on money laundering or national security – areas for which they have not been adequately trained. Last spring, B.C.’s Cullen Commission into money laundering heard testimony that police in B.C. lack the trained people to prevent offenders from committing this complicated crime. Money-laundering is a massive illegal industry that requires a large investment of resources and technical know-how. Meeting modern-day challenges like this requires new kinds of employees, with different skills and training, and a dramatically different allocation of overall resources. Under its current structure, we are asking the RCMP and its employees to do the impossible.

RCMP priorities are also skewed by the fact that in the eight provinces where the RCMP acts as the provincial force, the provinces pay at least 70 per cent of the cost of provincial policing. This means the provinces often call the tune for much of the policing activity performed by what is a federal organization. Or, by the same token, it means the federal government is subsidizing functions that are inherently provincial in jurisdiction. We need to ask ourselves whether the national force is capably dealing with emerging 21st century threats like hate crime, transnational crime and opioid smuggling.

So, what to do?

While the overarching issues of the RCMP’s mandate have been discussed in a number of fora, previous important reviews have generally limited themselves to more specific matters. Those include the McDonald Commission’s focus on wrongdoing by the then-RCMP Security Service; the Kellock-Taschereau Commission on espionage in the wake of the Gouzenko affair; and the Major inquiry into the Air India Bombing, to name but a few.

Moreover, the last time the Mounties experienced a major mandate overhaul was more than 40 years ago, when the Pierre Trudeau government removed the RCMP’s responsibility for security intelligence and created the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Given these factors, I believe now is an opportune moment for my colleagues in the Senate to step in and perform a root-and-branch review of the RCMP’s mandate and its mixed federal-provincial role. The contracts between the RCMP and the provinces it serves are not due to be renewed until 2032, giving the country ample time for discussion and to condition ourselves for change.

It has been five years since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began appointing independent senators pledged to remain free of party politics – I was the first to be appointed in April 2016. The vast majority of the upper chamber’s members no longer belong to an established political party, giving the Senate freedom from electoral considerations to conduct a fair and impartial review. The Senate’s mandate to focus on regional representation also makes the upper chamber a good candidate for the job, given the importance of the force to the West. One of the essential responsibilities of the Senate is also the care of Canada’s national institutions.

The inquiry should look at the role and mandate of the 21st century national police service and the skills needed to be an effective national force, as well as the resources and organization needed, and its recruitment practices.

Restrictions imposed upon us by the pandemic have made it difficult to push forward with reviews like the one I envision. If time permits, I hope to introduce a motion to this effect before the summer. If not, the Senate will be asked in the fall to consider this idea.

Canadians have expressed pride in the symbols of the RCMP. The scarlet tunic, the musical ride and training at the “depot” in Regina are international icons. But let’s not let nostalgia blind us to the need for change in a world where threats come in increasingly varied, menacing and complex forms.

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Peter Harder
Peter Harder is a former senior federal public servant and previously acted as deputy solicitor general and deputy minister of public security. Harder was appointed as the first Independent Senator in April 2016.  

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