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Two reports dropped within six weeks of each other revealed deep systemic failures in Canadian policing that go back half a century.
The report of the Public Order Emergency Commission (POEC) provides the framework for bringing Canada’s long-ailing policing system back from its collapse under the weight of the 2022 occupation of Ottawa. It should be read and implemented conjointly with the compatible details furnished by the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission (MCC).
The POEC report examines the reasons the policing system could not co-ordinate an adequate response to protests against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and perceptions of government overreach more broadly in the winter of 2022. The MCC report probed the shortcomings of the RCMP response during the massacre of 22 Nova Scotians at the hands of a shooter impersonating a Mountie in the spring of 2020.
The reports address first the unclear and often inappropriate relationships between police and government and civilian oversight bodies as filtered through the widely misunderstood notion of police “operational independence.” Second, they note a lack of professionalism and a tendency to devolve to overt and systemic biases that lead to inequitable policing policies, practices and acute abuses of authority and force.
The POEC report is unequivocal that no one demonstrated an adequate understanding of who precisely was responsible for what in the planning and execution of police operations.
Then-chief of the Ottawa Police Peter Sloly was reluctant to answer questions asked – or take on input offered – by his governing Ottawa Police Services Board. It is perhaps understandable that Sloly was reluctant to fully engage his board given the pressures of the occupation and that board’s previously demonstrated leakiness and other shortcomings. However, Commissioner Paul Rouleau is correct in stating that board inadequacies (quite common across Canada) do not relieve any chief of their statutory responsibilities to answer to their board on matters of operations and to seek their guidance. Boards should be better trained and equipped with resources and legal advice to fill their roles.
READ MORE FROM THE SERIES
In Ottawa, the police services board did not press the chief, which was its responsibility. When the board asked for help from the province, the solicitor general was slow and timid in response. The result was widespread misunderstanding and inadequately challenged and co-ordinated plans. The invocation of the Emergencies Act was deemed necessary to control a protest that had devolved into an illegal and potentially dangerous occupation.
Similarly, the MCC report detailed mistakes made by then-RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki in putting pressure on her divisional commanders in Nova Scotia to provide information to the federal government about the types of firearms used in the massacre. Lucki’s divisional commanders wanted to withhold this information on the basis that they felt it could compromise their investigation. Lucki was accused of serving what she saw as the federal government’s agenda to pass firearms control legislation. Again, for the MCC, this example pointed to inadequate overall management of the RCMP and poor policing outcomes due to misunderstandings about “operational independence” and related dysfunctional culture.
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Both commissions correctly pointed to these failures in police governance, planning and operational execution as regrettable given that the issue of operational independence had been clarified in previous reviews. This goes back to the McDonald Commission of the early 1980s, which looked into illegal activities of the RCMP when investigating domestic terrorism and other matters of national security. It is echoed through the Linden report examining the tragic resolution of policing Indigenous protests at Ipperwash in the 1990s, and the Morden report examining the inadequate policing of the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010. It goes back to biases in investigations into missing people in the Epstein report in 2021 and policing street-check techniques in the Tulloch review in the latter half of the 2010s.
Both recent reports make it clear once again what “operational independence” means – nothing other than that no oversight body or political or state actor may issue any instruction to the police on whether, when and how to use their powers of investigation, arrest or charging (which is done in collaboration with Crown prosecutors).
Both reports stress that any other type of questioning or broad direction given to police chiefs by civilian oversight bodies or state actors is appropriate – providing that such instruction be transmitted in writing and in a publicly visible way (when the threat of compromising an operation through the public release of information has passed). Obviously, there is no precise, formulaic definition of how much questioning or broad direction of policing operations is “too much.” When done transparently, this will later be scrutinized and controlled by the courts, political opposition and the public.
Addressing the second major fault line in Canadian policing – professionalism and bias – both reports lean on the standard call for improved education and training. That way, there is a broader view of the role of policing in partnership networks of community safety and harm-reduction. The MCC report goes further to recommend that all police officers in Canada come into the profession armed with specialized, research-intensive post-secondary education that includes training in law, psychology, community health and other disciplines. That would contribute to open-mindedness, broader problem-solving skills and to a working culture that tends to look outward rather than remain overly insular, and thus stagnant.
Implementing legislative reforms to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Act and provincial and territorial police legislation is essential to ensure that police operational planning is improved through questioning and consideration of alternative inputs – and more enlightened application. It will help improve policing plans not only for mass events, but also in the domains of how marginalized and hard-to-reach communities are reflected in policing planning and insulated from disproportionate use of repressive police authority.
The recommendations from both commissions will also force political leaders to take ownership of the ways in which they (often properly) attempt to align policing with their broader priorities. For example, it is a good thing that city councils seek to align policing policies and practices with community safety and well-being. Conversely, any more-questionable direction of policing to serve any partisan or electoral interest would no longer be easily concealed behind incorrect, expansive notions of operational independence.
It is early days for these reports – but the current signals for their implementation are not much brighter than for other reviews. Policing legislation in Ontario approved in 2019 continues to languish – and be chipped away – while the regulations that are necessary for proclamation are still not completed. Education standards for police recruits are now being rolled back rather than increased.
While recent moves in Ontario are an inauspicious start, it remains to be seen if politicians at all levels of government will finally embrace calls to cut through the confusion about operational independence by legislating clear lines of responsibility for policing and elevating the standards of the profession. The frustrating history of policing reform suggests that they will take on more accountability for their efforts to influence policing only if media, scholars and the public maintain pressure for such evidence-based action.
This article is part of the Lessons from the Rouleau Commission special feature series.