Policing expert Paul Palango, author of a new book on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, argues we need to revamp the dysfunctional organization–or get rid of the RCMP altogether.
Over the past few years, RCMP controversies have been in the news constantly. The extent of lying revealed during the inquiry into the tasering and death of Robert Dziekanski has been mind-boggling. High-ranking RCMP officials embezzled millions from the force’s retirement funds. The RCMP Commissioner misled Parliament about what politicians knew about Maher Arar. During a recent botched drug bust, an RCMP dog dragged a Surrey man to officers who kicked and stomped on him, even after the man had apparently pointed out they had the wrong apartment number. A long-awaited RCMP investigation found no fault with its officers, even after Ian Bush was arrested outside a hockey arena for jokingly giving a false name and, 20 minutes later, was dead in a jail cell from a bullet to the back of the head.
The debacles keep coming. Yet, somehow, the RCMP remains unassailable. Aside from the replacement of the Commissioner for his prominent lying, why have officers been subjected to only token reprimands or transfers? Why haven’t RCMP leaders or politicians emerged to be held accountable? Is it time to revamp an organization seemingly permeated with poor training, weak supervision, corruption and dysfunctionality? Should BC avoid renewing its contract with the RCMP in 2012, and instead create a provincial police force like it had until 1950? Paul Palango explores these questions in his recently-published book, Dispersing the Fog: Inside the Secret World of Ottawa and the RCMP (Key Porter, 2008).
Most of the book is old news; what makes it important is the way it gathers the staggering litany of cases the RCMP has bungled, and outlines wide-ranging negative impacts on Canadian society. Palango shows the RCMP’s politically-manipulated bumbling all over the interminable Mulroney-Schreiber-Airbus investigation, the increase in white collar crime, gang shootings, the Air India bombing, America’s frustration with our border security, the sponsorship scandal, the APEC riots, the Vancouver Olympics budget fiasco, and the alleged BC Rail bribes.
And Palango doesn’t lack credibility. From 1977 until 1990 he worked at The Globe and Mail, eventually becoming national news editor. Palango later published two widely-respected books about the RCMP, Above the Law and The Last Guardians, making him one of Canada’s most sought-after experts for radio, TV and print news media.
Dispersing the Fog, though–and Palango along with it–has fallen into a media black hole. There have been only a handful of book reviews, and relatively few interviews. CBC Sunday Morning, CTV’s Canada A.M. and CBC radio cancelled interviews without explanation.
The most likely reason is traceable to one section of the book, where Palango uncovers unreported facts from which he develops a controversial, even “blasphemous” hypothesis about what really happened to Maher Arar, the now iconic victim of a U.S. extraordinary rendition to Syria. But even if one ultimately disbelieves the hypothesis, the general media blackout mainly serves to underline Dispersing the Fog‘s disturbing observations about the worsening state of Canada’s Mounties, government and media.
To provide context for Focus‘ interview, Palango’s comments are interwoven with some of his book’s most compelling topics.
Mulroney-Schreiber, the Sponsorship Scandal and Bre-X
At $6 billion, the Bre-X “fool’s gold” scandal was the biggest investor fraud in Canadian history. While executives of Enron, WorldCom and similar massive U.S. scams from the same era languish in jail, the RCMP hasn’t managed to get a single Bre-X representative successfully prosecuted.
Similarly, during the Chretien-Martin era, millions of dollars ostensibly for pro-Canada advertising illegally greased palms in ministries, crown corporations and private companies. Yet the RCMP never got a single conviction against any politician, and only a couple of minor bureaucrats were ever charged. Worse, millions passed through the RCMP’s own coffers.
In Germany, Karlheinz Schreiber was found guilty of helping companies secure government contracts by bribing politicians right up to former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Schreiber distributed tens of millions in Canada, most famously to apparently “encourage” our government to purchase Airbus airplanes. Yet, while numerous German politicians are doing hard time, the RCMP has never filed a single charge against any Canadian politician–not even against one actually caught hiding hundreds of thousands of dollars in mysterious cash pay-offs from Schreiber, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Do we really have no corrupt politicians in Canada? Do we really have no corporate criminals? Or, suggests Palango as he examines these cases and more, do we just have the most inept federal police force on the planet?
“The RCMP have shown over the years that they do not know how to do white collar crime cases and they have no real interest in doing it, either,” comments Palango.
The central problem, he explains, is that the RCMP simply isn’t doing its real job. It’s supposed to be our national-level guardian police service, like the U.S. FBI. However, as a legacy from colonial times when the RCMP was customarily the only police force across much of the country, bred with the modern custom of government services being run like businesses, the RCMP now contracts itself out as a local police service to most rural areas and smaller cities outside Ontario and Quebec (which have their own provincial police). As a result, the agency responsible for investigating national-level crimes like corporate fraud, political bribery and organized crime derives the bulk of its operational funding from local service contracts that keep it preoccupied tasering confused immigrants and arresting people with open beers.
“It’s very much a problem, because [contracting out] is done at the expense of federal policing,” emphasizes Palango. “They’re not supporting other police agencies or doing organized crime investigations or money laundering investigations at the level they should be doing them nor the frequency they should be doing them, because they don’t have that manpower. It’s all dedicated to the guys in the streets… You don’t see the FBI in North Dakota driving around in marked cars handing out speeding tickets.”
He’s not alone with his opinion. Federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser also noted that the RCMP is doing contract policing “to the detriment of staffing its federal policing activities.” The RCMP Public Complaints Commissioner concluded, “The RCMP should not be involved in contract policing.”
And while the RCMP are distracted from white collar crimes, Palango says they’re substandard contract police, too, due to their dubious legal accountability.
Lack of Local Accountability
As a federal agency, the Mounties aren’t subject to any provincial Police Act. So they may hold local meetings or discuss regional issues, but they don’t take orders from any provincial or local governments where they work. They’re beholden only to their Commissioner in Ottawa, and to vague, generalized business agreements with “client” governments. Meanwhile, says Palango, as far as everyday RCMP activities go, the Commissioner is overseen by no one.
“The Commissioner of the RCMP is probably the most powerful person in Canada other than the Prime Minister,” argues Palango.
He points to the Dziekanski case as a prime example of the delinquency endemic in this organization that’s long been responsible to no one. All the officers described Dziekanski’s actions wildly out of sync with the video evidence, RCMP officials admitted to deliberately misleading the public and, so far, no RCMP leader has fully apologized let alone announced firings or organizational changes.
“Mark my words they’re going to say, ‘Well, this was an exception to the rule,’” comments Palango. “But this is systemic. This is a force that will do anything to protect itself. It will lie, it will fudge… It will smear its enemies… It’s shown how this force operates and how it thinks, and that’s only because that’s an extraordinary event. And you have to ask yourself, well, if they did it in that case, what bigger cases and what smaller cases have they done it in?”
Palango commends BC Attorney General Wally Oppal for calling the inquiry, because the RCMP would otherwise never have held itself accountable to British Columbians and we would never have seen how unprofessional they can be. And Palango notes it’s no mystery why Oppal did it. In 1994, the former Supreme Court justice released a report he’d written about the RCMP. “The force simply must become more accountable to local needs and allow more participation by local government,” wrote Oppal. “In the event that the RCMP is not prepared to undergo the necessary change… it will be imperative for the province to consider establishing its own provincial force.”
Palango argues this lack of local accountability is even more dangerous when it dovetails with the RCMP’s inability to crack white collar crime cases and its susceptibility to high level political interference, as happened during a major BC-based investigation.
Political Manipulation, Chinese Embassy Corruption and Gang Shootings
In 1984, the Mulroney government turned the Commissioner of the RCMP into a deputy minister.
Imagine if Victoria’s police chief doubled as a minister under Premier Campbell: Would you trust a VPD investigation into Liberal corruption? Not surprisingly, then, Palango quotes an RCMP Deputy Commissioner soon complaining of “information improperly being disclosed to political officials or to officials of the minister” during criminal investigations of sitting politicians.
“The relationship since 1984, since the RCMP Commissioner has been serving as a deputy minister,” says Palango, “has made it quite clear that the force can be influenced by the Prime Minister.”
His book explores an unsettling illustration of the scope and danger of this problem.
Most British Columbians are aware of this decade’s surge in Asian organized crime and gang violence in the lower mainland, with Surrey as epicentre. But why is it happening? Are Asians simply more likely to be violent criminals than other immigrants?
In the late 90s, what eventually became a joint CSIS-RCMP investigation called Project Sidewinder began unearthing widespread corruption in the Canadian embassy in China. Our new “investor” immigration program was allowing people to buy Canadian citizenship for $250,000, and bribes had been opening doors for known drug criminals and Triad members to move here. Sidewinder investigators also believed the growing gangs, sometimes in conjunction with the Chinese government, were engaged in nefarious attempts to manipulate our elections.
At the same time, however, Canada’s economic and political ties with China were expanding at breakneck pace. So as Project Sidewinder gathered steam, the government became concerned. Might we offend our important new trading partner? And how many of our own bureaucrats, officials or even ministers could be indicted?
Eventually, the lead RCMP investigator would openly charge that the Immigration Ministry of both the Mulroney and Chretien governments had been stalling the investigation. He was transferred, writes Palango, and the criminal investigation was then dubbed a national security issue for CSIS alone. But CSIS is overseen by the government-civilian Privy Council and Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which at the time included numerous corporate representatives with extensive economic ties to China.
Project Sidewinder was shelved.
“A lot of the development going on in BC has come from money of dubious origins,” comments Palango. “There seems to be no political will to deal with this reality. It’s as if, ‘This is a boon for us, and hey, don’t stop the gravy train.’ I think this condoning of loose, dubious offshore money will come back to haunt the [lower mainland] in the long run, like it is now, with the growth in violence.”
And why is Surrey central? Surrey, points out Palango, is the official national RCMP training ground.
“BC holds the kindergarten for the RCMP. And where is that kindergarten? Surrey,” says Palango. “You have no senior policemen there. You have a growing problem in this fast-growing area, in that you have policemen who are basically rotated through the town in 18 months to 3 years and sent off somewhere else… There’s no continuity in the policing system.”
Criminals know as well as anyone that police need many years in a community to develop the intelligence they need to bust organized crime outfits, so they’re drawn to Surrey.
And while SIRC shelved Project Sidewinder for supposedly being just “insinuations and unfounded assertions“, Palango notes that similar allegations arose in the U.S. regarding Chinese embassy coordination of election manipulation efforts. After those assertions were fully investigated, 22 people were convicted of fraud or illegally funnelling funds into U.S. elections. Among them were people also caught smuggling assault weapons into Canada for gangs.
“This continually happens,” laments Palango, “where you see this influence by politicians on the RCMP in high profile cases affecting the elite of the government and the business world.”
Palango finds even more, hitherto undisclosed government influence over the case of Maher Arar.
Who is Maher Arar, Really?
“I’d planned to do one chapter on Arar,” says Palango. “Poor man gets victimized by dysfunctional police force, gets tortured, gets apology, gets 10.5 million dollars, and that’s it.”
But Palango’s coverage expanded as he uncovered a numbered company that connected Arar to Pietro Rigolli, a man eventually convicted in the U.S. of smuggling war materials into Iran through Canada. Mysteriously, someone in the government or RCMP had apparently later hidden this trail–including taking the unusual action of withdrawing related RCMP search warrants and affidavits from Montreal court files. Garry Clement, a lead RCMP Arar investigator, was shocked to learn about it.
“Somebody at the top of the RCMP had to know all this, but we were never told. If we had known about the company back then, it would have changed the whole course of the investigation,” Clement told Palango. “This puts a whole new light on things and raises serious questions about Arar’s version of events and what he was really doing.”
Through the ensuing mix of research, analysis and (sometimes irksomely fanciful) speculation, Palango wonders if Arar was a covert agent for the FBI, and develops a new perspective on how the Arar story unfolded in the government and RCMP’s backrooms.
Unfortunately this, undoubtedly, is the albatross dragging Palango and his book into a media black hole. Who wants to come anywhere near such a provocative attack on a man who has virtually become the Canadian human rights version of Mother Theresa?
The Vancouver Sun‘s Ian Mulgrew simply mockingly accused Palango of being a conspiracy nut–without addressing any of Palango’s factual arguments.
The Globe and Mail published a vague, pedantic dismissal of Dispersing the Fog, absent any disclosure that the book reviewer consults on policing for the federal government.
“In my experience in journalism,” comments Palango, “I would expect at least one reporter would have gone to Montreal and gone through the records and said, ‘Mr. Palango is full of shit,’ or ‘Mr. Palango’s absolutely right’, or ‘there’s more to this story than Mr. Palango’s saying.’ But to do nothing? In and of itself it’s an indictment of the state of the media. It’s about the sad state of investigative journalism in the country.”
I certainly didn’t have the time or resources. I did notice even Palango himself wasn’t immune to this epidemic of “under-investigative” journalism–there were some important unpursued trails and incorrect claims of fact in his book. And I did call Arar’s “volunteer media coordinator”. He said Palango’s writing on Arar was merely “an act of lunacy” that only interested the “lunatic fringe”. He also made it clear there was no chance even specifically fact-related questions I submitted would be passed to Arar.
Ironically, then, whether we believe Palango’s Arar theory or not, our media’s “non-response” effectively proves one of Dispersing the Fog‘s central complaints, that the decline of investigative journalism is making it even harder to hold the government and RCMP to account in high profile cases.
So which way should we turn?
Should the RCMP Contract be Renewed?
Most major police forces find the RCMP incompetent and unhelpful, says Palango, but they’re gagged. The RCMP’s working contracts with police agencies require the RCMP to approve public statements relating to its activities.
“The net effect is that the RCMP has the means to stifle any public discourse among policing agencies about its miserable performance,” writes Palango. Surveys back Palango up but, illustratively, Palango quotes former Vancouver police chief Bob Stewart, long after serial murderer Robert Pickton had been caught: “[T]he women were taken from Vancouver and murdered deep inside the RCMP’s jurisdiction. The media, with the assistance of the RCMP, sat back and criticized the city police. If the RCMP had been doing its job properly, that man would have been caught a lot sooner.”
So should BC fire the RCMP?
“I don’t think the contract should be renewed,” says Palango. And he’s not alone. New Liberal MLA Kash Heed and Vancouver Chief Constable Jim Chu have suggested at least pushing RCMP contractors out of the lower mainland by creating a regional police force. “More people are talking about it now than I’ve ever noticed in the last 15 years of watching this.”
Some argue RCMP contractors are cheap alternatives to a provincial force. Palango counters that an average RCMP officer costs us $156,000 per year; a municipal officer, $105,000 or less. This excess cost is only partially compensated for by federal subsidies of 10-30 percent. But it may be worse: Statscan complains the way the RCMP calculates its budgets and categorizes federal versus local responsibilities makes it impossible to clearly assess its policing costs.
But wouldn’t creating a provincial police force require massive outlays?
Palango suggests swapping authority over the existing infrastructure is all that’s needed. “You’ve got to remember the RCMP in BC was created out of the body of the BC provincial police in 1950. Maybe it’s time to do the reverse.”
What’s preventing it?
The RCMP harbours some dedicated professionals but, Palango contends, our resistance to revamping it has less to do with rationality than with a Mountie mythology propagated partly through the RCMP’s long-time promotional relationship with Disney. “[N]o place is more devoted to the cult of the Mounties than British Columbia,” he writes, even though “the RCMP had likely generated more bad press and infamy for British Columbia over the previous two decades than in the rest of the country combined.”
“The majority of Canadians don’t understand the issue,” comments Palango. “If you look at the RCMP, no right thinking person would want them as your police force under this situation, unless you change the accountability rules. It’s basic. There’s no place in the world that has a police force like it in democratic countries. But it gets back to this sort of deferential nature of Canadians who historically do not like to challenge authority and do not really like change.”
If BC does keep RCMP contractors, Palango urges doing one key thing: “Bring accountability to the local level. Which means not only making the police accountable, but making the people who are overseeing the police accountable: the (provincial) Solicitor General and local mayors and local police commissions. Because right now no one’s accountable. Of course the RCMP like it. Of course the politicians like it, because nothing sticks to anyone! It’s a perfect situation for a local politician, having this police force in there that, no matter what they do, it goes back to some funny potentate in Ottawa.”
A Dangerous Future?
However, if we keep the RCMP, Palango worries about “integrated policing”, the RCMP’s unfocused vision of working more closely with all police agencies.
“It’s all based on the idea that police forces will trade information and act together in some sort of unilateral fashion,” says Palango. “But the lines of accountability are completely blurred. And this is actually a dangerous idea.”
Palango believes integrated policing may pave the way to one all-encompassing police force without checks and balances like the Soviet-era KGB, overseen by the RCMP, and controlled directly by government.
“I don’t mean to speak about it in a paranoid way. It’s just, that’s the way things have happened through history. If you’re not vigilant, bad things happen. And we’re not being very vigilant.”
Yet, BC has the power to influence that future greatly.
“Almost a third to 40 percent of RCMP members at any one time are serving in BC,” notes Palango. “So however BC treats the RCMP is going to determine the fate of the RCMP. If (BC) gets them out of contract policing, I think that the RCMP itself will have to get out of contract policing around the country. And it could precipitate a series of events right up to the national political level.”
In Palango’s mind, that’s good: The RCMP would have to be re-focused on its true job as a national-level guardian, like the FBI.
Although, he’s skeptical.
“Successive governments have shown no interest in trying to fix what’s wrong,” notes Palango. “So you have to ask deeper questions like, ‘How does Canada operate, then? If the governments aren’t interested in fixing the police, and they’re only paying lip service to doing it, what’s really going on?’”
Pointing back to the many unsolved organized crime, corporate crime and political bribery cases, he asks rhetorically, “Who does this benefit?”
Originally published in Focus, July 2009.