Trudeau’s government has a plan to tackle racism in the RCMP. Experts say it won’t work

WATCH: Former Mounties tell their stories of bullying and intimidation in the RCMP and how it affects the Mounties' ability to help provide protection for Canadians.

The Mounties are under fire.

In early June, a video circulated on social media showing a Nunavut RCMP officer driving his truck into a man and hitting him with the door before getting out to arrest him.

Then, Chief Allan Adam broadcast a dashcam video documenting his violent arrest at the hands of two Mounties in Alberta — a video the prime minister said raises “serious questions.”

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On June 12, RCMP officers in New Brunswick killed Rodney Levi, a 48-year-old man from Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation. His death was just a few weeks after another local police agency killed Chantel Moore of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation.

Pinned between criticism over the Mounties’ handling of one of the worst mass murders in modern Canadian history and the movement to defund police sweeping the continent, Justin Trudeau’s government has offered strong indictments of systemic racism within the force.

In interviews and tweets, his cabinet ministers have disavowed racism and made it clear they recognize solving the problem requires drilling down to the roots. As Minister of Crown Indigenous-Relations Carolyn Bennett tweeted: “The system isn’t broken, it was built that way.”

The cabinet ministers’ tweets, in particular, struck some as performative given they’re in the party that’s been leading efforts to reform the RCMP for years now. Indeed, one of the select few people the RCMP must abide by is their colleague, the public safety minister, who answers to Parliament.

Erick Laming, a Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto, is blunt: “It sounds like more lip service.”

The government’s current reform plan, as outlined by Mary-Liz Power, press secretary for the public safety minister, includes body-worn video cameras to be worn by Mounties “across the service” (experts have already made it clear this won’t address systemic racism).

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The government is also working on a legislative framework to expand First Nations policing and to bolster the force’s Civilian Review and Complaints Committee’s (CRCC) powers along with renaming it the Public Complaints and Review Commission.

Power did not respond to questions about what role the civilian advisory board, brought in last fall to help modernize the force following years of bullying and sexual harassment, will play in addressing systemic racism.

Former public safety minister Ralph Goodale announced the creation of the board in January 2019 in response to the CRCC’s 2017 report. Critics were quick to note that the board has no power to make binding decisions, despite civilian oversight being a mainstay recommendation in more than 15 reviews of the RCMP conducted in under a decade.

Richard Dicerni, chairperson for the board, told Global News that the events of the last few weeks have more to do with police work than management, human resources and training. As such, he says, “it’s not explicitly in our space.”

Still, Dicerni expects “over the next few weeks and months” the board will discuss how to incorporate conversations about systemic racism into its mandate.

But the government’s attempts to convince people that what’s to come won’t be more of the same are certainly not helped by Mountie Commissioner Brenda Lucki’s flip-flop on whether systemic racism in the force exists, says Laming (it does).

For Trudeau to say “reforms are needed at all levels of policing” and Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller to tweet “there is work to do” to reform and modernize the RCMP’s culture, “to do better,” but then carry on with the same reformation plan?

“Like I said, more lip service,” says Laming, “because what have you really done?”

Global News asked both Miller’s and Bennett’s offices whether the tweets could be taken as a sign the ministers intended to press Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to follow through on more aggressive reform measures. Only Bennett’s office responded.

And while spokesperson Emily Williams did not answer the question, in an emailed statement she said: “Reconciliation is a crucial priority for our government and we are committed to renewing our relationship with Indigenous Peoples based on the affirmation of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.”

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Calls for increased oversight of Canada’s national police force aren’t new, although they’ve been growing louder as of late.

Speaking on June 17, the Green Party’s Elizabeth May called for an inquiry into the force, asking its culture of accountability be “put under a microscope.”

That same day, the RCMP released a use-of-force report showing that in the last three years, Mounties have pointed their guns at people far more frequently than they’ve pointed other, less lethal, weapons like Tasers.

Then, the CRCC added fuel to oversight concerns when it released new data showing it’s sitting on 181 outstanding interim reports into the conduct of members because the commissioner has yet to provide the official response required before the CRCC can finalize its investigations.

Of those, 130 have been waiting for more than a year. The oldest report the commissioner has yet to respond to is nearly four years old and includes recommendations on topical issues like use of force in a cell block, medical assistance to prisoners, strip searching a woman prisoner and force policies about strip searching.

The force has “developed an action plan” that it has shared with the CRCC to prioritize completing the outstanding reports, per Catherine Fortin, a spokesperson for the RCMP. She also noted, “efforts are underway to double the number of personnel responsible for review and analysis” moving forward.

But what most RCMP experts have agreed on for far longer than that particular report has sat awaiting official response is that reform requires tackling Mountie culture, which is deeply embedded in its structure.

The RCMP is paramilitary in nature, which several reports, including the 2017 one from the CRCC, have blamed for pervasive problems: members who fear repercussions if they speak up, promotions that aren’t driven by skill but rather who you know and a military-style presumption that because an officer occupies a senior rank, they must wield their power with skill and professionalism.

So even if you put the question of is it or isn’t it systemic racism aside and take a closer look at what reforms the government has undertaken, Laming says it’s clear they “haven’t really done anything in terms of changing the culture.”

It’s the culture that’s crucial to reform — at least, according to numerous inquiries and expert reports conducted this century and last. The many, many reviews have been in response to bad press sparked by multiple harassment, bullying and sexual harassment class actions, as well as a proposed class action over the RCMP’s handling of the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and another proposed class action over Mounties’ treatment of Indigenous people in the north.

To successfully tackle that will mean going back to the beginning, says Steve Hewitt, a senior history lecturer at the University of Birmingham and author of three books about the RCMP’s history.

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It’ll mean going back to the fact the RCMP was created as a means to control Indigenous people and clear the path for western settlement. In a way, he says, Mounties are prisoners of their own history, which makes change hard.

“It isn’t just that they’re a police force,” says Hewitt.

“They’re a foundational national myth to English-speaking Canada, which makes it hard to bring about any kind of change when on one level the public sees the organization as a fundamental component of their vision of Canada.”

Fortin, the Mountie spokesperson, says the force is aware of its “long, sometimes difficult history with Indigenous communities in Canada” and has a number of efforts underway in an attempt to improve it. That includes an Aboriginal and First Nations awareness course and cultural sensitivity training specific to different regions in Canada.

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There’s a real risk to reforming the Mounties now, cautions Matthew Norris, a Cree man from Lac La Ronge First Nation who is vice-president of the Urban Native Youth Association and co-chair of the Vancouver Just Recovery Coalition.

“If not done correctly, it can result in the reinforcing of the very anti-Indigenous kind of systemic discrimination and racism within the institution,” Norris says.

“If you reform the institution in ways which support it without addressing these underlying systemic issues then you just reinforce the ongoing violence and abuse.”

So, if Canada is serious about this then “we have to start from square one,” Norris says.

“We have to recognize that the RCMP in particular was developed on the oppression and the marginalization and the removal of Indigenous voices and Indigenous bodies from the land.”

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Recognizing these problems are not new, Morris says, is key to acknowledging that Canada can’t “continue to reinforce an institution that has had the chance to rebuild trust and has failed to.”

Defunding the force is a solution Chad Haggerty, a Métis ex-Mountie from northern Alberta, can get behind.

“A high percentage of the calls that I went to were calls that no police officer was properly equipped to deal with,” he says.

Haggerty attended mental health calls, including ones for people feeling suicidal, and welfare checks — the kind that ended in death for Moore, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman in New Brunswick, and more recently, for 62-year-old Ejaz Choudry in Mississauga, Ont.

Still, it wasn’t until the end of his career that Haggerty started to second-guess his cop mentality. At the time, he says, he was facing domestic violence charges (he later pleaded guilty) and he decided to resign from the force.

One of the reasons Haggerty is so supportive of defunding the RCMP is the 17 years he served as a Mountie.

“When police investigate themselves, on some level, officers know that it could one day be them in the hot seat,” he says.

“That, coupled with this foundational belief amongst the majority of police officers I’ve met in my service that it takes a police officer to do a proper investigation, means a fundamentally flawed mindset.”

It persists now, Haggerty says, and requires “a wholesale cultural shift” to fix, which means reforming the RCMP Act and letting Canadians take a peek behind the curtain.

And while policy changes take time, he says the public needs some actions now.

“The public needs the ability to review police actions — RCMP or municipal — as it happens without police having the opportunity to spin the situation.”

— With files from Beatrice Britneff, Mike De Souza and the Canadian Press

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