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Parliamentarians fiddle while RCMP burns

By John Williamson
web posted November 26, 2007

The tragic killing of Robert Dziekanski on October 14 at the hands of four RCMP officers in Vancouver's airport has upset many Canadians. It was a shameful display of police brutality and a clear message that Ottawa does not have a firm grip on its own police force. So why isn't it the lead topic in the House of Commons? The governing Conservatives seem unwilling to openly probe an agency they are now responsible for, preferring instead to manage the problem. More disappointing is that Question Period is dominated by the Liberals single-minded obsession with the Mulroney-Schreiber affair. When the Opposition does get around to asking questions about individual rights it doesn't concern heavy handedness by the police at home, but the plight of terrorist detainees in Afghanistan.

Robert Dziekanski
Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski is seen in the arrivals area of the Vancouver airport in this video footage taken October 14

Canadians are rapidly losing faith in the Mounties as one troubling incident after another sullies the force's public standing. Its leadership and cultural troubles can no longer be neatly swept under the carpet. Accountability cannot be limited to the spending and management of tax dollars. Paramount is how citizens are treated by government and its institutions, no matter how revered. The state is not serving the public whatsoever when careless law enforcement tactics are deployed and police mislead the public after the fact.

Public attention is drawn to improprieties involving tax dollars, big or small. We hear howls of protest from Parliament when a billion dollars is wasted on a useless long-gun registry or when $1.29 -- the cost of a pack of chewing gum -- is charged to taxpayers. Canadians properly expect the federal government to be accountable for the financial conduct of its officers and agencies.

Yet, it seems Parliament, as well as many proponents of limited and responsible government, are not ready to hold the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to the same rigorous standards expected from other government departments and agencies. This is as much an accountability issue as anything the auditor-general might uncover: Parliament is obsessed with money in envelopes and Taliban prisoners while their police force is killing hapless travelers in Vancouver.

The tragedy in Vancouver is only the latest controversy to hit the national police. The Brown investigation into the mishandling of the force's pension and insurance fund is piercing. It concluded that the RCMP governance structure and culture are "horribly broken." The November 26th edition of Maclean's reveals "one in eight members are now receiving a disability payment" (how is this possible?) and that the RCMP escapes accountability since "unlike other police organizations in Canada, the force remains answerable only to itself."

There are many questions to be asked: why did the RCMP officers apparently not follow protocol on Taser use, which outlines six procedures to follow before firing. As pertinent, why did guards with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) permit Mr. Dziekanski to languish in its processing facilities for almost ten hours? There are, of course, other matters, but answering these would be a good start.

It also does not sit well that a public inquiry has been called by British Columbia, not the federal government. Why isn't Ottawa leading the review since the RCMP is in obvious need of reform, and immigration and border security are federal responsibilities? It was good that Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said this week the four Mounties might face criminal charges. Unfortunately, the RCMP will conduct the investigation on itself.

Say what you want about Washington's system of checks and balances. When a U.S. law enforcement agency steps out of line that country's attorney-general faces tough questions from Congress. It happened in the wake of two deadly confrontations involving the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the first involving white separatists at Ruby Ridge and the second between government agents and a bizarre cult in Waco.

At the very least there is a requirement on our MPs to ask questions of four police officers who killed a lone man with a Taser within seconds of arriving at the scene. The Harper government made a bold move early this year by breaking with tradition and hiring a commissioner from outside the force. But it is still necessary to make the RCMP more accountable to the public through Parliament.

Because the RCMP brass is notorious for its silence precisely when information is most needed, Parliament must demand answers and take responsibility for its police force. CBSA guards will soon be issued sidearms and yet it is not clear which -- if any -- lawmaking body is responsible for its oversight. This is a troubling omission that needs to be addressed.

There is no need to turn a blind eye to this branch of government. Indeed, lawmakers would be mistaken assuming Canadians want vigilance when safeguarding tax dollars but no action to rein in bureaucratic neglect or overkill from our security agencies. ESR

John Williamson is federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.


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