OTTAWA - Liberal members of a disbanded Senate committee have taken the unusual step of releasing a position paper while Parliament is shut down, recommending sweeping changes to the embattled RCMP.
Rebuilding the national police force "makes far more sense than trying to stuff more people in Canada’s already overstuffed jails," says the paper, released Monday by six Liberals who were members of the Senate’s security and defence committee in the previous Parliament.
The document, "Toward a Red Serge Revival," says any reputable criminologist knows good crime prevention is far more effective than the Tory plan to send more people to prison for longer stretches.
The paper acknowledges there’s an RCMP reform process underway but the senators have little faith in that process. They warn that if it doesn’t work, Canadians are in for more "horror stories" about the decline of what they call a national treasure.
"The RCMP transformation seems to lack any momentum," Sen. Colin Kenny, the committee’s longtime chair, said in an interview.
"One of the biggest things it’s lacking is some signal from the government for oversight. The other thing it’s lacking is funding."
Scandal, controversy and morale issues have plagued the iconic national police force in recent years. It has been the subject of several studies and inquiries, but relatively few changes have been implemented.
Conservative Sen. Pamela Wallin called the Liberal report "a straight-up political move for Sen. Kenny to try and grab the spotlight."
"I don’t know why he wants to be so critical of the RCMP," said Wallin, a member of the former security and defence committee.
"There are lots of problems with what he’s saying.
"I don’t think it’s well thought through."
RCMP Commissioner William Elliott, an ex-bureaucrat brought in from outside the RCMP in July 2007 with a mandate to overhaul the troubled force, recently announced a series of internal policy changes.
Among them are reforms to the force Taser policy and plans to address long-standing concerns about conflict of interest by hiring out-side experts to investigate serious incidents involving Mounties.
But the senators say broader RCMP transformation is endangered and genuine reform is unlikely unless some key changes are made - including replacing Elliott with someone from within the police ranks.
"It’s time for the commissioner to move on," said Kenny. "The government achieved its objective; it shook up the force. It’s time for a new commissioner.
"We think it should be someone who was or is a Mountie. ... It doesn’t make sense to carry on with someone who doesn’t have policing experience."
The senators are also calling for better RCMP oversight, more women and minorities on the national force and more money and resources to augment the overstretched ranks.
Said Kenny: "There’s no way that you can police communities if you don’t have people who look like the people who came from those communities."
Wallin took issue with that, saying Kenny’s assertions don’t reflect what she saw when she travelled to small communities policed by RCMP.
"The last time I checked, we lived in a democracy," she said. "You can’t force people to join the RCMP. You can’t go out and hire people who aren’t interested or who aren’t up to the job for the sake of meeting some quota."
The full Senate committee has been examining various elements of the RCMP as part of its continuing review of national security and related issues for almost a decade.
It focused on RCMP transformation for the last year but Kenny said senators couldn’t agree on a report before Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament until March, effectively ending its run.
Kenny says the full committee was bogged down in partisanship, but Wallin said its members never got the chance to finish their work before Harper pulled the plug.
"The Senate committee was ... still in the middle of both collecting information and research and putting together a report."
A government-appointed task force recommended three years ago that Ottawa make three fundamental changes to the RCMP by the end of 2009.
The task force, headed by Toronto lawyer David Brown, said the RCMP should be a separate and more independent entity from government, that it should have a civilian board of management and be under the scrutiny of an independent commission for complaints and oversight.
Former Public Safety minister Peter Van Loan has said the government wants to consider a report from Justice John Major before tackling Brown’s recommendations.
The Liberal Opposition has called that a Tory delay tactic. The report by Major, who led the inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing, is said to be complete but no date has been set for its release.
Brown’s task force spent five months interviewing more than 2,000 RCMP members across the country. It heard tales of understaffing, chronic fatigue, equipment shortages and management structures that haven’t worked effectively for years.
The task force was set up after a 2007 report on the RCMP’s scandal-plagued pension fund, also written by Brown, recommended a review of its structure.
Kenny said the six Liberal senators believe RCMP reform is "too important for the government to stall it any longer."
"The RCMP needs to get moving if the public trust is to be restored," said the senators.
"We sincerely hope that this paper helps stimulate that process."
Wallin said speeding such a process is difficult given the RCMP’s size and distribution.
"You just don’t take a huge bureaucracy like this and implement changes," she said.
"It takes time to do this and faster is always good, provided it’s the right thing to do.
"And that’s I think where this committee could have been useful, which is choosing some particular things where we could have laid out a path as opposed to just jumping on some belated bandwagon and attacking the RCMP because there have been serious incidents.
"I think it’s belated and it’s mean-spirited."