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The federal government has four months to find someone to lead Canada’s national police force through even more tumultuous times.
In his retirement announcement earlier this week, outgoing Commissioner Bob Paulson highlighted a number of pressing internal — as opposed to operational — issues for his successor.
Still, retired senior deputy commissioner Bill Sweeney said stabilizing the organization was a very important part of Paulson’s tenure that began Nov. 2011.
“In the late 1990s right up to 2010, the RCMP seemed to be faced with a number of inquiries where the confidence of Canadians was being tested,” Sweeney told CBC News.
To be sure, under Paulson’s watch, there have been far fewer major controversies over how RCMP officers do their jobs, use force or handle sensitive intelligence.
“Since Paulson’s appointment, much of that has quieted — and one would have to give him credit for that,” Sweeney said. “There are still issues that need to be attended to, but we’re not facing any huge crises that we were in the last decade.”
Morale, though, is poor and eventually that takes a toll on frontline policing.
Employees’ mental and emotional health is an issue, which Paulson highlighted in his memo.
Certainly, the RCMP has yet to come to terms with the toll operational stress injuries are taking on staff, as well as how to re-integrate people into the workforce after they’ve been off sick for long periods of time.
Next month, the RCMP will be tried on labour code charges related to the 2014 murder of Mounties in Moncton. To this day, officers complain about how many high-powered carbine rifles and pieces of hard-body armour are available to them in the field.
Mounties haven’t had a raise in more than three years, and top brass have signalled that what the federal government is prepared to give won’t bring them up to par with other Canadian police services.
And while the rank and file won the right to unionize more than two years ago, the government bill to set out the framework and process for RCMP unionization remains in limbo.
Meanwhile, efforts to certify under another law are stalled. Those who have organized are largely split into two associations — the Mounted Police Professional Association and the National Police Federation — and the two can’t seem to get along.
“There’s a very formal process that’s established in order to select a person to fill this role of this stature and gravity,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said of the search for Paulson’s replacement.
“It’s a process that will involve a very, very careful consultation to make sure that the leader of this distinguished national police force has the qualifications to provide exemplary leadership for Canadians.”
‘It’s a process that will involve a very, very careful consultation to make sure that the leader of this distinguished national police force has the qualifications to provide exemplary leadership for Canadians.’ – Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale
CBC News has spoken to rank and file members, including officers and those who’ve retired from the force, about what the government should look for in the next commissioner.
Serving members of the RCMP are prevented from commenting publicly, but in off-the-record chats, they said the force’s next leader should be someone with expertise in human resources and modern labour relations.
Hopes are also high for someone with strong character who can stand up to government while also being a relatable, respected and understanding person who understands life on the front line.
That’s a tall order.
And that’s why Paulson’s predecessor believes it would be helpful to rethink the organization’s structure.
“I believe the new commissioner should, with the support of the government, renew governance initiatives — notably including making the RCMP a separate employer and an independent agency,” said William Elliott, the force’s first civilian commissioner.
The idea is that a board of civilians would take over administrative and managerial responsibilities in non-policing areas, such as awarding contracts, audits, personnel matters and property management.
Meanwhile, operational matters would remain the focus of police. Most modern police agencies operate in a similar fashion.
Elliott backed the idea back when he was commissioner, but the government wasn’t interested at the time. When the new commissioner took over, Paulson said a civilian board of management wasn’t necessary.
That kind of structural change could finally put to rest the ongoing debate over whether the commissioner absolutely has to be a lifelong Mountie.
Names that top the list of serving or retired contenders include:
Another idea that will surely gain traction with Paulson on his way out is that Mounties should be able to take complaints about workplace harassment to a body outside the RCMP.
Right now, Mounties investigate their own, and the outcomes have often frustrated officers or not met the expectations of the public. One relatively recent example is how the Mounties decided to dock pay from staff who had bullied their colleagues and gone nude during office hours at the RCMP-run Canadian Police College.
Sweeney said the next commissioner will have to take the baton from Paulson and run with it.
And, despite the news some days, Sweeney is confident change is underway at the RCMP.
“I’ve always believed that cultural change is more incremental,” he said. “It’s almost like watching your children grow: there are changes every day but you don’t necessarily notice it — and then all of a sudden they’re in school and high school and graduating and getting married.”