The Harper government’s proposal to replace the current, gums-only Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP with a new, baby-toothed civilian watchdog agency is better than nothing.
But not by much.
The new agency will have power to force witnesses to appear and testify, but will need to get the justice minister’s OK to initiate investigations. And there are Mack-truck-sized loopholes permitting the Mounties to withhold information.
Former complaints commissioner Shirley Heafey asks: “Where is the really big change that is going to make a difference in RCMP accountability across the country?” And answers: “I don’t see it.”
The new agency, of course, will also do nothing to resolve several ongoing, high-profile complaints, including one about the 2008 death of Nova Scotia Native John Simon on the Wagmatcook reserve.
On Dec. 2, 2008, an RCMP constable named Jeremy Frenette shot and killed Simon, who was alone inside his house, drunk and suicidal, at the time. By entering the house alone without a warrant, the junior RCMP officer violated his superior’s orders. Frenette claimed Simon—who was sitting on the toilet smoking a cigarette when he first slipped into the house—ran to the kitchen and grabbed a rifle. The officer fired three times, killing Simon. The rifle, which other witnesses didn’t see, wasn’t loaded.
The Mounties asked Halifax Regional Police to investigate. But its investigation was anything but arm’s length.
Gary Richard, the lawyer for the Wagamatcook First Nation, recently released emails he says show the Mounties were in the loop on the investigation and may have even influenced its final outcome. He also provided transcripts of interviews with potential witnesses whose evidence appears to have been ignored. Richard’s conclusion? The Halifax police department’s report was “incomplete and even, in some respects, indifferent.”
The current Commissioner for Complaints Against the RCMP, under pressure from First Nations groups, finally initiated his own probe this winter. But the commission’s powers are severely proscribed. Hence, the need to replace it.
Hence, the need for a provincial public inquiry. Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry, a 34-year RCMP veteran, refuses to call one.
But he does recognize the current police-investigate-police system is not the answer. Last fall he too announced plans for new legislation to create our own “independent” provincial unit to investigate allegations of police misconduct. But that legislation won’t be introduced until this fall. And it won’t look at old cases.
We need an independent inquiry—with teeth—now.