Knowing that RCMP officers were at least a half-hour away, Ty Johre decided to give chase when he came upon thieves one summer evening at his rural home near the eastern Alberta hamlet of Heinsburg. Jumping into his pickup, he pursued their fleeing truck at high speeds for 40 kilometres, even though at one point one of them stuck a gun out a window. Johre, 28, eventually gave up and accepted that he’d been cleaned out of expensive tools, farming equipment and a large lawnmower in the August 2019 burglary.
What he found hard to accept, however, was the RCMP’s seeming indifference to catching the criminals. Even though his property was strewn with empty beer cans left by the thieves, he says police didn’t try to lift fingerprints, merely filing a report so he could make an insurance claim. Two months later, thieves struck again and stole Johre’s boat, bringing his total loss to $19,000. “It seems to me the police are more interested in catching traffic violators than solving crime,” he says. “They don’t want to do the legwork.”
The RCMP stepped up patrols in the area, but only for a couple of weeks. “I can count on one hand the number of RCMP cars I have seen since,” he says. Neither burglary was ever solved. In many communities, like Heinsburg, rural residents have taken matters into their own hands and formed ad-hoc community watch groups. When a strange car appears, Johre says, one of the residents goes out to investigate and occasionally to confront the interlopers.
Johre’s frustration reflects broad disenchantment with the RCMP’s response to the vexatious rise in crime across Canada, especially in rural areas. Statistics Canada’s crime severity index, which measures the volume and seriousness of crimes including theft, was 33 percent higher in Canada’s rural areas than in urban areas in 2021 (the latest year for which numbers are available). In addition to higher rates of homicide, the countryside experienced more violent firearm-related offences, sexual offences against children, uttering threats and criminal harassment. Over the last decade the index has risen by 7 percent in rural areas nationwide – it fell by 8 percent in urban Canada – and is up by a whopping 34 percent in Alberta.
The RCMP’s failure to control let alone curb rural crime is one major reason why some Albertans are asking whether a provincial police force could do a better job. Just last month, the northern Alberta city of Grande Prairie decided to drop its contract with the RCMP and create a locally run municipal force. More significantly, Alberta’s UCP government appears to be leaning toward ending its 91-year relationship with the RCMP. Last August, Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro unveiled an official proposal to replace the Mounties with a homegrown team, saying that one of the key potential benefits was “ensuring that every type of community, no matter how big or how small, has its core policing needs met.”
Following on the work of a government-appointed panel and a detailed consultant’s report, the UCP government asserts that a made-in-Alberta police force would strengthen civilian oversight, provide more frontline police officers and improve performance – all at a cost not much higher than the province pays the RCMP under contract. It has proved a highly contentious proposal, with many wary municipal leaders fighting to keep the status quo, numerous critical media commentaries and derision from opposition parties. That’s partly out of worry for what change might bring and partly, it would seem, because many Albertans still feel an attachment to the RCMP as a result of its long and, until recent years, largely distinguished community service.
Tarnishing their Own Brand
But that image has been tarnished by a series of fiascos in Alberta and other provinces. The latest and possibly worst stain on the RCMP’s reputation came from its blundering response to the unspeakable shooting rampage in Nova Scotia three years ago that left 22 dead, a number of whom could probably have been saved. The scathing report from the Mass Casualty Commission, released March 30, went beyond merely upbraiding the force for its slow reaction and terrible public communications, saying Ottawa must overhaul the RCMP and re-examine its role in community policing – or find alternatives to the Mounties in much of the country. “There is a long history of efforts to reform the RCMP’s contract policing services model to be more responsive to the needs of…communities they represent,” the report states. “These efforts have largely failed to resolve long-standing criticisms.”
It’s little wonder that the Mounties have fallen far in public esteem. An October 2022 Angus Reid study found that fewer than half of those polled across the country had confidence in the RCMP, while 45 percent said they had “not a lot” or “a complete lack” of confidence. Nor is it surprising that other cities and provinces are exploring the same move as Alberta. Nova Scotia ordered a review of policing models in the wake of the mass shooting there, New Brunswick’s minister of public safety has urged a “hard look” at establishing a provincial police force, and an all-party committee in British Columbia has recommended B.C. do just that.
Some critics say it’s time for a complete structural change in national law enforcement that would see the RCMP drop its contract policing role entirely so it could focus on its federal responsibilities, like cybercrime, counter-terrorism or human trafficking. Far from being a heroic police force that “always gets their man” – a cliché that, for over a century, people would utter without sarcasm – the RCMP is increasingly seen as a dysfunctional anachronism whose time has passed.
From Provincial to Federal Policing – and Back Again?
It’s a little-known fact that Alberta once had its own police force at a time when the province’s population numbered barely 600,000. It folded in 1932 when its government ran out of money during the Great Depression and the RCMP, which had begun as the North-West Mounted Police in 1873, took over. Back then the federal government paid 60 percent of policing costs, and by 1950 every province except Ontario and Quebec had disbanded its provincial police services.
Those eight provinces, the three territories, more than 150 municipalities and 600 Indigenous communities still rely on contract policing with the RCMP. (Newfoundland & Labrador uses a blend of RCMP and its own Royal Newfoundland Constabulary). Under this system, provincial governments pay the RCMP to serve rural areas and small communities, while towns and cities with populations of 5,000 or more may arrange contracts with the force or look after their own policing requirements.
Rural policing is 70 percent funded by the provinces and 30 percent by the federal government. Municipalities that contract with the RCMP also receive a modest federal subsidy. (Alberta provides a top-up so that smaller towns pay just 30 percent of policing costs.) Seven Alberta cities, ranging in size from Edmonton and Calgary to Lacombe and Taber, have their own police, and there are three Indigenous police services as well.
The recent push for a provincial police force began with Alberta’s Fair Deal Panel, struck by then-premier Jason Kenney to study ways the province could reduce its dependence on the federal government. Panel Chair Oryssia Lennie recalls that at provincewide hearings “many, many Albertans” expressed concern about law and order in their communities. “They felt the RCMP weren’t as responsive as they would’ve liked them to have been,” Lennie says in an interview. “The bloated bureaucracy [in Ottawa] didn’t allow the RCMP to be nimble to respond to the needs of the community.” She remembers one businessman in the Alberta/Saskatchewan border city of Lloydminster complaining about the poor RCMP response after all 11 of his company’s trucks were stolen. “Policing didn’t appear to occur in an efficient and effective way,” Lennie says diplomatically.
The panel’s report in May 2020 recommended creation of a provincial police force, saying it would mean more efficient policing. Districts could pool resources and focus them on high-crime areas, and could operate “without waiting for prior approval from Ottawa every time a new initiative is needed to tackle crime.” Many Albertans, the panel’s report said, thought the RCMP’s forces were stretched too thin and that its habit of moving officers from one detachment to another, and in and out of the province, meant they were never grounded in local communities and were thereby less effective. Some felt “the RCMP was unable or unwilling to confront activists who terrorize farmers,” while others complained of the force’s heavy-handed enforcement of firearms laws.
The province then commissioned Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) to figure out what an Alberta provincial police force would look like. From PwC’s 2021 report the government developed a “blueprint” that envisioned a force operating under a provincial commission with rural, urban and Indigenous representation plus local commissions to tailor police work in each community. The new force (RCMP officers would be eligible to apply) would have about 120 more front-line officers and carry annual operating costs of $735 million, plus $366 million in transition costs over six years.
While those estimated operating costs are higher than Alberta’s $672 million 2020 contract with the RCMP, the PwC report noted that RCMP salary increases negotiated in 2021, and retroactive to 2017, drove Alberta’s actual contract policing costs to $742 million for that year. The end of federal subsidies would, however, leave Alberta taxpayers on the hook for roughly $200 million in new annual costs – not insignificant but relatively small on a 2023-24 provincial budget of $68.3 billion. Justice Minister Shandro believes the federal government will eventually try to exit anyway. “They’ve indicated in every way possible that they want out of that liability, they want out of that subsidy,” Shandro said last August.
Supporters of the Status Quo Dig In
Alberta’s plan came under immediate attack. The NDP opposition argues it’s simply an anti-Ottawa move motivated more by politics than common sense and would cost taxpayers millions more annually than the RCMP. The RCMP, for its part, took issue with the notion it’s not responsive to the needs of local communities and is too much controlled by Ottawa. Curtis Zablocki, the Commanding Officer of the Alberta RCMP, insisted the force works with the province to ensure transparency and accountability. “Our budget and staffing levels are determined by the Government of Alberta, the provincial policing priorities are developed with their oversight and approval, and we report on strategic and budget performance measurements on a regular basis,” he said in a written statement.
The RCMP also insists its response times to rural crime scenes are reasonable. Cpl. Gina Slaney, a media relations officer in the RCMP’s southern Alberta district, said that in 2020 the average time for an officer to arrive on the scene was 21.3 minutes for Priority 1 and 2 calls involving danger to life or the potential for escalation or violence. In only 5.7 percent of Priority 1 and 2 calls did officers take 45 minutes or longer.
Meanwhile, the National Police Federation, the union representing the RCMP’s sworn officers, management and civilian staff, released a Pollara poll in August 2022 showing that more than 80 percent of respondents in Alberta want to keep the RCMP “outright or with improvements.” (Well more than half that group wanted improvements, though the poll questions didn’t specify what those improvements might be. Kevin Halwa, the union’s regional director, did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Perhaps most surprising, given the widespread concern over rural crime, is that the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) has come out against a provincial police force as well. The association worries that such a force might be less efficient and more expensive for rural areas in the long run, in part because it believes the province is low-balling the required staffing level. It calls the idea that the RCMP is controlled by Ottawa, with little input locally, a “red herring” and says it would be risky to bring in an “unknown and unproven service.”
Tanya Thorn, the mayor of Okotoks, a pleasant bedroom community just south of Calgary, said communities like hers simply aren’t convinced a provincial police force would improve public safety. “There’s no traction in it,” she said. “The province has failed to explain what problem they’re trying to solve.” She insists her city has an excellent relationship with the local RCMP detachment commander. “There are certainly things the RCMP could do better, but the [provincial police] model proposed isn’t better,” Thorn said. “At the end of the day, it’s got to be around community safety for all Albertans.”
In all that, almost no one is holding onto the old chestnut that Alberta is too small to put together an efficient and effective police force. It’s an argument that would be tough to credit, given there are not only dozens of U.S. states but plenty of other jurisdictions – countries even – with smaller populations that manage the job.
Bureaucratic Inertia, Spiralling Costs, Questionable Tactics, Tragic Failures
Grande Prairie, population 67,669, is one city that’s decided it can do a better job. Councillor Dylan Bressey says he was similarly skeptical about getting rid of the RCMP but became convinced during hundreds of hours of research that a local police force would better address public safety concerns – and at a cost no higher than what the city pays the RCMP. “It really is clear to me as I dug into it that this is the right way going forward,” Bressey says in an interview. (The province is kicking in $9.7 million to help Grande Prairie with its transition.)
A 115-page report prepared by municipal staff found the RCMP wanting in a number of areas. “They used to be way cheaper,” says Bressey, but the cost gap has closed. The report noted that the 2021 retroactive wage agreement awarded unionized officers a pay raise of 24 percent over six years – a deal Ottawa negotiated with no input from the municipalities, although they will have to cover the costs. A Federation of Canadian Municipalities report found this hit city and town budgets hard. The central Alberta City of Red Deer, for example, faced $5.37 million in one-time costs and an extra $690,000 annually for its RCMP contract.
Grande Prairie’s report also noted the city’s Crime Severity Index is 172, well above the overall Alberta level of 111 and the Canadian average of 75, and said surveys of city residents show their satisfaction with local policing has declined by 15 percent over 10 years. The high turnover among officers and local force leadership, the report went on, means officers don’t stay in the city long enough to develop the skills not only to investigate crime properly but also prevent it.
Perhaps the biggest concern was the question of accountability and who really needs to be in charge. The RCMP primarily answers to the federal Minister of Public Safety and not to the local authority which contracts its services, the report said. This has had real effects, such as proposed crime reduction initiatives being delayed by the Mounties because “they are not aligned with existing RCMP policy or directives.” In just one example, Bressey said it took 15 years for senior RCMP officers to approve the introduction of community peace officers to deal with petty crime, even though local RCMP leaders had endorsed the idea.
Other incidents in Alberta point to a force tone-deaf to its local constituency. One was the case of Okotoks-area rancher Eddie Maurice. He was criminally charged after firing two warning shots from a small-calibre rifle as two trespassing would-be thieves rummaged in the middle of the night through vehicles on his rural property. (Several years earlier, RCMP had failed to respond when the Maurices reported an attempted break-in.) One of those shots ricocheted and struck one of the intruders in the arm. Maurice immediately notified police. When they at last responded more than two hours later, they arrested Maurice with guns drawn and threw him in jail. More than 600 citizens, outraged that Maurice was charged, contributed more than $50,000 to his defence fund before the Crown dropped the charge.
Even more serious fiascos, both in Alberta and nationally, have chipped away at the force’s formerly stellar reputation as an effective crime-fighting force. In what became known as the Mayerthorpe massacre, for example, four Mounties were gunned down in 2005 by a single armed man who was well-known to police as unstable and potentially violent, after being sent to the man’s rural property with only three handguns among them. One officer had been given permission to be on the scene in plainclothes and unarmed. The judge who conducted an inquiry into the deaths found the officers were “heavily outgunned” and even had to ask neighbours for rifles during the hours-long incident because the local detachment had just one on hand. Tellingly, it took the RCMP six years to decide to purchase additional rifles for its rural detachments – and years longer to train officers in their use.
Following the 2020 Nova Scotia massacre, the RCMP took heavy criticism over communication failures among responding officers, delays in getting warnings out to the public and mishandling of the crime scene. RCMP statements to the public during and immediately after the incident were riddled with mistakes, confusion and omissions. Key information about the case was also withheld from the public longer than needed, a commission report stated.
Compounding those failures was evidence of political motivations at the RCMP’s highest levels. Internal RCMP documents leaked to the media show that on April 28, 2020, then-RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki pressured senior officers to release details about the firearms used in Nova Scotia because this could help the federal Liberal government to pass tougher laws against lawful gun ownership. (All of the firearms used in the Nova Scotia massacre had been illegally acquired.) Lucki recently resigned from the force amid criticism of the politicization of law enforcement.
An Ekos survey of 2,976 Canadians released in April 2022 found that public confidence in the force’s senior leadership has nosedived. Only one-third of those surveyed thought the RCMP’s national leaders were effective, a dramatic decline from the 57 percent approval rate in 2018-19. The poll found overall trust and confidence in the RCMP had fallen to 53 percent nationwide from 74 percent over the same period.
Might the RCMP be Jettisoned – or Severely Scaled Back – by its own Masters?
It’s possible the strongest impetus to drop the RCMP in Alberta, however, may come from Ottawa. In 2021, MPs on the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security recommended the federal government “explore the possibility of ending contract policing.” The committee’s report focused on racism that is allegedly rampant in policing and said a “transformative national effort” is needed to end “the discrimination and injustice that is inherent in the system as it exists today.” But one of the underlying problems, it said, is that the force’s mandate is too broad, and “consequently, the RCMP may not have the capacity to police areas where they are not familiar with community concerns.”
In the mandate letter accompanying his Cabinet appointment following the 2021 federal election, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino was tasked with assessing RCMP contract policing, in consultation with the provinces and municipalities. There appears to have been little progress. Shandro has suggested the federal government is looking to either withdraw the RCMP from community policing or shift all the costs onto the province, citing a statement on Public Safety Canada’s website that, “It has been the Government of Canada’s objective since the 1960s to decrease its contract policing financial liability.”
Aside from such haggling over dollars and cents, there’s a more profound and apparently growing sense that the RCMP is fundamentally unsound, built on a flawed model that makes it increasingly ineffective. In a recent policy brief for the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, academics Kevin Lynch and Jim Mitchell argue that the Mounties are trying to do too much and, as a result, don’t do anything particularly well. (Lynch and Mitchell have deep experience in official Ottawa; Lynch is former Clerk of the Privy Council, essentially the nation’s top bureaucrat, and Mitchell is a former Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet.) They believe the problem is “inherently structural”: the RCMP is both a federal police force with national responsibilities and a contract police force for small-town Canada. “This mandate creates a jumble of accountabilities and responsibilities which lead inevitably to confusion rather than clarity in times of crisis,” they wrote in their paper.
The authors note that contract policing – something done by no other national police force in any other major advanced country – sucks up much of the RCMP’s resources and distracts it from its vast federal mandate. It includes organized crime, white-collar crime, cybercrime, human trafficking, drug smuggling, anti-terrorism, and other national threats to public safety and security, as well as securing federal facilities and protecting leaders. Yet, with 65 percent of its resources devoted to community policing, “The RCMP are not spending nearly enough resources on federal policing,” Mitchell says in an interview.
Lynch and Mitchell call this “model failure.” It’s not a criticism of RCMP officers and civilian personnel but rather a recognition that they “operate within an organizational structure that is failing both them and the citizens they are sworn to protect.” They say ending contract policing is key to enabling the RCMP to refocus on today’s national and international threats. Such a shift would also free up provinces, like Alberta, to create their own more responsive and accountable police service, better attuned to local needs.
So what’s the holdup? Politics, says Mitchell. He notes there’s been little progress on Mendicino’s review and puts that down to the fact the majority of voters across Canada still support RCMP community policing. Even the Ekos poll, which showed a 20-point drop in faith in the RCMP’s integrity over the last four years and a 17-point drop in perceived accountability, also reported that 85 percent of respondents assign a high degree of importance to the RCMP’s role in keeping Canadians safe. Fifty-seven percent are satisfied with how the RCMP fulfills its role in maintaining public safety and while that number has declined noticeably, offloading its work to the provinces is still seen as politically risky. Asks Mitchell: “Where are the votes in that?”
Even in Alberta, momentum seems to have stalled. With a provincial election looming in late May, UCP ministers are dodging questions about any shift to a provincial police force. Shandro’s office referred questions to Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis, whose office provided a short statement: “No decision has been made on an Alberta Police Service. Our government continues to consult Albertans on more ways to improve public safety, including exploring new policing models.”
Despite the battering and bruising the force has sustained – much of it self-inflicted – the sentimental attachment to the Mounties runs deep, even in skeptical Alberta. Long before the 1950s when TV’s Sergeant Preston of the Yukon battled renegades and outlaws, the Red Serge embedded itself into Canadians’ psyche as the uniform of a noble police force everyone could count on. Inspired by a newspaper report from 1877 in which the North-West Mounted Police tracked down and captured whiskey smugglers, Hollywood declared: “The Mounties always get their man.” The line stuck because most people considered it true.
This image may help explain lingering public affection for the police force even following stumble after stumble. Still it seems remarkable that Canadians would retain confidence in the RCMP when there’s so much evidence that Ottawa-based federal agencies can’t do any job efficiently – from running passport offices to administering billions of dollars in Covid-19 relief, from protecting our democracy against Chinese interference to keeping a few dozen army tanks in combat-ready condition, or even feeding the 100 soldiers we recently sent to Poland.
Those closer who’ve dug into the issue and are most affected by it, however, feel differently. Drew Barnes, the independent MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat and a member of the Fair Deal Panel, thinks the longstanding loyalty to the RCMP is quickly fading. “There’s no question rural Albertans are demanding a higher level of service than they currently receive from the RCMP,” says Barnes in an interview. He believes a provincial police force would work more closely with nearby municipal forces to coordinate the battle against rural crime.
Barnes thinks it’s a shame people are hung up on the potential short-term increase in policing costs. “In the long term, we’ll get, I believe, a tax savings.” More importantly, he believes all citizens will be better protected by a locally mandated police force. “Crime is not just isolated to the city or country,” he said. “I absolutely believe it’ll do a better job.”
Doug Firby is an award-winning veteran journalist and newspaper manager based in Calgary, Alberta, who has worked in print and electronic media for more than 40 years.
Source of main image: Click Images/Shutterstock.