The RCMP has been rocked this week by two major (unrelated) scandals which have once again called into question the organization’s willingness to abide by the law, respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and provide a workplace free of harassment.
The week of ignominious revelations was a low point for the Mounties in what is already a scandal-plagued year. Lately, it seems that every month features disclosures of misbehaviour, law-breaking, or worse by the RCMP.
Here’s an in-no-particular-order roundup of the ten biggest scandals facing the force so far in 2016:
1 – The RCMP illegally spied on journalists
This is one of the two scandals which have had the Mounties on the defensive this past week. In 2007, two RCMP investigators illegally spied on two reporters from La Presse after the Montreal paper published CSIS documents relating to suspected terrorist Adil Charkaoui. The pair of investigators tailed the journalists for nine days in an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the source of the leaked documents. CBC News recently uncovered proof of the surveillance through an Access to Information request.
The RCMP’s account of the affair has heavily emphasized the fact that the two Mounties in questions were acting against orders from their superior officer, who twice denied their requests for permission to conduct surveillance. This may in fact be the case – but there’s no proof that this is so, or that the denial of permission wasn’t accompanied with a knowing wink and nudge.
What is especially notable in the RCMP’s accounting, however, is that permission eventually was granted to the two investigators, several months after their surveillance of the reporters had concluded. Apparently, no additional surveillance was conducted as a result of this approval.
And who gave the green light for these Mounties to spy on journalists? Acting Assistant Commissioner Bob Paulson, who has since been promoted to Commissioner. Paulson wrote a lengthy email to the CBC attempting to justify his behaviour, which damningly revealed that the two offending officers received nothing more than a reprimand as punishment for their egregiously illegal behaviour.
2 – The RCMP is prosecuting a journalist for refusing to reveal information about a source
In 2014, VICE Media’s national security reporter Ben Makuch conducted a series of online chats with Farah Shirdon, a Calgary-born man who travelled abroad to fight with Daesh. (Shirdon almost certainly died last year, several months before the RCMP charged him with terrorist offences in the midst of a highly politically charged election campaign.) The discussion, while interesting, wasn’t exactly full of vital information about national security.
That didn’t stop the RCMP from demanding that Makuch turn over all of his chat logs. VICE and Makuch fought against the RCMP’s production order, but in March of this year, a judge decreed that the organization must turn over all the material they have on the matter. The press freedom advocacy organization Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has called the ruling “shocking” and predicted it will have a “massive chilling effect” on reporting.
The concern, obviously, is that if sources fear that their conversations with journalists will ultimately be turned over to the police, that will make them less inclined to go to the press. And VICE is particularly worried about the precedent this case may set:
[Patrick McGuire, head of content at VICE Canada] said there was no question of Vice withholding “highly reliable evidence… This is not a matter of protecting a confidential source. It’s not as if we have a map to Shirdon’s bat cave. It’s really about protecting an independent press.”
For his part, RCMP Commission Paulson said that while he is “very sensitive to the freedom of journalists to be free from the RCMP forcing them to give information…if we see a source of evidence that’s available, then we’re gonna make an application to the appropriate judicial body to get authorization to collect that evidence.”
In other words, he respects the freedom of the press only so long as the press doesn’t have any information he wants.
3- The RCMP has been using excessive violence when arresting Indigenous people
Tragically, this scandal isn’t anything new, nor is it getting anywhere near the amount of attention it deserves. It’s impossible to know the true scope of RCMP brutality against Indigenous people, as many incidents no doubt go unreported. Here’s a sampling of stories from just the last couple of months:
- Christian Duck Chief, a 23-year-old Siksika man, suffered from “a broken eye socket, fractured cheek bone, fracture to the back of his head and a broken nose” after being dragged naked from his bed by the RCMP. He alleges he was hit twenty or more times by officers after he was handcuffed and prone on the floor. Duck Chief has been charged with assaulting a peace officer and resisting arrest.
- Trent Angus, a 27-year-old Indigenous man, appears to have been brutally beaten by the RCMP during an arrest in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. A surveillance video in the possession of Angus’s family apparently shows Angus being attacked by police dogs, getting Tasered, and then beaten by RCMP officers. The RCMP is investigating its own behaviour during the arrest.
- Jamie Morgan and her 13-year-old autistic son North Wind were arrested and charged with assaulting police officers in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Morgan called the RCMP when her son got extremely upset. She alleges that when police arrived, they tried to restrain North Wind, and when he showed minor resistance, an officer immediately began punching the boy in the head. When Morgan tried to stop her, the officer shoved her and handcuffed both the child and his mother.
- Sgt. Paul Marenchuk, a Mountie with over thirty years of experience on the force, has been charged with assaulting two prisoners with a weapon in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. Marenchuk has been suspended with pay.
- An off-duty RCMP constable has been charged with an off-duty assault on the Saskatchewan First Nation of Stanley Mission. An 18-year-old woman was brought to the hospital due to injuries sustained in the assault.
It’s no secret that the RCMP has a problem with racism – Commissioner Paulson himself admitted it in a meeting with Indigenous leaders late last year. However, to date the RCMP’s top cops have done little to actually address this pressing issue, as evidenced by the continued violence Indigenous people are suffering at the hands of the Mounties.
4 – The RCMP’s approach to counter-terrorism has been both ineffective and terrifying
For several years, the RCMP has put an enormous (some would say inordinate) amount of emphasis on their counter-terrorism efforts. They regularly ask the federal government for more money for their counter-terror programs, and complain that they’ve had to shift resources away from investigating organized crime and financial fraud in order to keep up with threats to national security.
But the RCMP’s recent handling of the counter-terrorism file has led to serious questions about their competence and judgement, and their use of newly-expanded powers has created some serious concerns.
An internal RCMP report obtained last month by the CBC shows that a four-year, $16-million program to screen refugees for threats to national security was a completely ineffective flop. The report showed that the program’s absolute failure, while partially due to a poorly designed program, were largely due to officer incompetence. This type of behaviour contrasts sharply with the force’s proud boasts of tireless efforts to protect national security.
On the other hand, the RCMP’s use of expansive new powers has civil liberties advocates concerned. In April, they arrested 23-year-old Kevin Mohamed on concerns that he “may” commit a terrorist activity. Until the passage of C-51 last year, the law required the police to be able to show they suspected an individual “shall” engage in a terrorist activity. His lawyer told media that Mohamed was baffled by his arrest.
Increasingly, Muslims in Canada feel that they are being disproportionately targeted by the RCMP, and that any speech or action which could be perceived or interpreted as overly critical of the government or overly sympathetic to terrorist organizations will be used against them. This may have been the case with Mohamed, whose travels to Turkey and presence on Twitter seem to have been the catalysts of the RCMP’s investigation. (Mohamed’s mother insists that his travels abroad were part of an entirely benign family holiday, and that he had been helping Syrian refugees in Turkey.)
Many questions still remain about whether the RCMP acted appropriately in arresting Mohamed. In the meanwhile, Muslims in Canada are feeling targeted.
5 – The RCMP has been secretly and illegally using Stingray devices to collect information about thousands of people
For years, the RCMP has refused to answer any questions about whether or not it used Stingrays, devices which mimic a cellphone tower and are able to collect information about any mobile phones within several hundred metres, including location data, the numbers of incoming/outgoing calls, the content of text messages, and subscriber information such as names and billing addresses.
We now know, thanks to documents recently obtained by VICE, that the RCMP has been using various versions of the device since 2002. Legal experts argue that the device’s use amounts to indiscriminate surveillance and is “almost certainly unconstitutional”. Stingray devices also pose a threat to public safety by interfering with the ability of affected phones to place 911 calls.
The RCMP has fought desperately in court to keep details of its use of the devices from becoming public. In the case which ultimately disclosed their use of Stingrays, the RCMP ultimately offered the defendants plea bargains to lesser charges, ending the trial and forestalling any further disclosures.
The use of Stingray devices – formally known as IMSI catchers – is illegal in Canada. Any organization violating this law faces fines of up to $10 million.
At this time, it’s unclear exactly how many innocent people have had their personal information collected by the RCMP through the use of these devices, nor is it known what the RCMP ultimately does with this information. With the Mounties determinedly fighting any further disclosure, the exact details may never be known.
6 – The RCMP intercepted and decrypted over one million BlackBerry message
According to heavily redacted court documents obtained by VICE last month, we now know that the RCMP has access to a global decryption key for BlackBerry devices, and that the force decrypted over one million messages over an undetermined period of time.
The RCMP again did their utmost to keep this information secret, as did BlackBerry’s parent company, RIM. The revelations, which will likely do major damage to RIM’s credibility, were also damaging for the RCMP.
Ann Cavoukian, the former Ontario privacy commissioner, said that it is “outrageous” that the RCMP have access to BlackBerry users’ messages – messages that they presume to be private due to the company’s reputation for strong encryption.
As with the Stingray scandal, the public is largely in the dark about many details of the RCMP’s access to encrypted BlackBerry messages. It’s unknown how long the RCMP has had this capability, how frequently they’ve used it, and how long they keep messages they access. Perhaps most shockingly, we don’t even know whether RIM provided the global key to the RCMP – or whether the Mounties obtained it in some other way.
7 – One of the RCMP’s most high-profile counter-terror cases in years is falling apart due to Mounties’ poor judgement
John Nuttall and Amanda Korody were arrested by the RCMP on July 1, 2013, in the culmination of a months-long undercover sting operation. The pair were charged with multiple terrorism-related offences for a plot to set off pressure-cooker bombs on the grounds of the B.C. Legislature. But the case, once widely seen as a triumph for the RCMP, has turned into a major liability for the force as it has ground its way through a years-long trial. And a few revelations this year have severely damaged the Mounties’ credibility when it comes to counter-terrorism.
Over the course of the trial, it’s been revealed that undercover Mounties steered Nuttall and Korody away from impossibly far-fetched schemes, pushed the idea of pressure cookers and a Canada Day detonation date, brought them to a Kelowna hotel for a weekend to teach them how to make C-4 plastic explosive, bought them groceries and cigarettes so they would be able to afford bomb-making materials on their meagre welfare benefits, and left John Nuttall with the impression that his life was in danger if he didn’t go through with the plot.
Revelations of the massive cost of the sting have also undermined the RCMP’s behaviour. The force apparently spent nearly $1 million on overtime alone for the 240+ officers involved in the operation, and as I wrote in March, that seriously calls into question their insistence that they need more money:
[In 2014], the Mounties complained that they had to divert some $23 million from other law enforcement activities into the counter-terrorism INSET program in 2013-14, a period which includes the entirety of Project Souvenir. (INSET is a collaboratory program jointly run and funded by the RCMP, CSIS, and the CBSA, and was responsible for the Nuttall/Korody sting.)
Now, we don’t know exactly what the final tally for the sting was, because they won’t tell us, but if nearly $1 million went to overtime, it’s easy to imagine that the total cost, including all the regular hourly wages, transportation costs, equipment and materials, funds given to Nuttall and Korody, and other assorted expenses amounted to more than $5 million, possibly quite a bit more.
In other words, it’s quite conceivable that fully one-quarter of the funds diverted away from other law enforcement activities went to the entrapment of two people eminently incapable of orchestrating any kind of terror plot.
Additionally, experts have questioned the RCMP’s portrayal of Islam in their interactions with the recently-converted couple. Omar Safi, a professor of Islamic Studies, testified that the pair would have benefitted from deradicalization through genuine spiritual counselling with an imam, and that the guidance offered by undercover Mounties was completely at odds with what any Islamic expert would have said. This has fuelled suspicions within the Islamic community in Canada that the RCMP’s efforts at counter-terrorism are rooted in Islamophobia.
8 – The RCMP’s witness protection unit was a toxic environment rife with workplace abuse
Earlier this week, the CBC published detailed allegations of harassment at the RCMP’s Witness Protection Program unit. According to an internal RCMP review, the department’s superintendent harassed and bullied at least three employees over a period of several months.
There are two more serious scandals here, though: First, the RCMP didn’t act on their knowledge of the situation for several months, and when they did, they passed the issue off to an investigator who “did not have the mandate to investigate allegations of harassment. He wrote he had been asked to “assess the level of satisfaction of the employees within their working environment.”” In other words, the RCMP established an investigation which was incapable of getting to the heart of the situation.
Second, the RCMP’s response to the CBC’s report has been brazen denial and obfuscation. Deputy Commissioner Mike Cabana issued a memo which detailed what he claimed were several inaccuracies in the report; the CBC’s Allison Crawford rebutted Cabana in a storm of Tweets. This is classic police damage control – attempting to change the narrative and undermine the credibility of critics instead of addressing the substance of the matter, which is the festering culture of bullying at the heart of the organization.
9 – RCMP officers regularly get away with sexual assault and harassment of their colleagues
Speaking of Allison Crawford, last month she reported that RCMP misconduct cases had soared by 158% over the last year. The RCMP is also facing over 40 lawsuits related to workplace conflicts.
Some of these have exploded into the headlines. Earlier this year, Crawford revealed the RCMP had mishandled an investigation into several allegations of persistent sexual harassment, unwanted touching, workplace nudity, and bullying by two supervisors at the RCMP’s explosives training unit. The victims of this workplace harassment and assault allege that the RCMP had all the information they needed to take action, and yet the force waited to respond until after the scandal went public.
The Mounties’ slowness to act to these serious allegations is part of a pattern. Cpl. Catherine Galliford, who recently settled a sexual harassment lawsuit with the RCMP, was diagnosed with PTSD after enduring years of sexual harassment from her colleagues. Efforts to deal with the problem internally were completely futile.
Nearly 400 female RCMP officers and civilian employees are currently involved in a class-action lawsuit against the Mounties alleging systemic sexual discrimination and harassment. A second, similar lawsuit was filed in Ontario this past March. Meanwhile, the RCMP continues to fire employees who are going through the process of suing the force.
While Commissioner Paulson acknowledged in February that the force had a bullying problem, he insisted that it didn’t have a problem with sexual harassment. This tone-deaf statement belies the experiences of hundreds of Mounties. Meanwhile, Paulson’s stated determination to root out the culture of bullying in the RCMP has so far not led to any concrete action.
10 – RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has used his position to get out of legal penalties
Speaking at a Vancouver Board of Trade event in March, top Mountie Bob Paulson told what he must have thought was an amusing anecdote. He was driving down the Coquihalla Highway in B.C. when he was pulled over by an RCMP cruiser for speeding. He described, to laughter, the expression on the young Mountie’s face when he realized that he’d just pulled over the RCMP commissioner.
Hilarious, right? Not especially. But Paulson found himself besieged with questions about the incident. Did he get a ticket? First the commissioner demurred, saying it was “just a story I made up”. When pressed further, he admitted it was true, but said he didn’t want to talk about it. Further questioning led to the admission that he was “warned” and that he regretted ever telling the stupid story.
Now, obviously, as scandals go, this doesn’t rank with the mass violation of the public’s privacy, systemic sexual harassment, violent racism, or press intimidation. But as an indication of the rot at the heart of the RCMP, it’s telling. The fact that the chief got off with a warning is perhaps not so surprising, but the fact that he thought it was appropriate to laugh and joke about it publicly is suggestive of a culture of impunity within the force. This goes a long way towards explaining the RCMP’s top brass’s reluctance to seriously deal with persistent allegations of sexual harassment within the force and racist violence against Indigenous communities.
Of course, the biggest scandals of the year may be still to come. In fact, given how many of the scandals on this list had their origins several years ago, we may not know about the RCMP’s current inappropriate/illegal behaviour for quite some time, if at all.
One thing should be clear from all this, though – the RCMP is conducting itself as though it isn’t accountable for its actions, either internally or to the public. And until that changes – until they become truly accountable – we can expect nothing to change.