The Hill Times - March 19, 2012
By Colin Kenny
Senator Pamela Wallin should wash her mouth out with soap. Then she should start doing her job as a senator – which is to push for changes that will better the lives of Canadians, not to pretend that their lives are already perfect under Conservative rule.
Sen. Wallin and I are profoundly at odds over how best to help the RCMP – a vital Canadian institution that has come under relentless public attack over a series of incidents that have sullied its once-noble reputation.
For half a decade now respected observers – some of them commissioned by the federal government itself – have been coming forth with recommendations as to how to fix the RCMP. You would be hard-pressed to find an intelligent observer who doesn’t agree that the service has serious problems with attitude, stress, understaffing, underfunding and structure.
Both the current commissioner, Bob Paulson, and his predecessor, William Elliott, have publicly referred to the huge challenges that face the reform process supposedly underway at the RCMP today, which has been hobbled by inadequate funding and the government’s lack of interest in making the kinds of structural changes to governance and oversight recommended by the experts.
Since my departure as chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, I have spoken and written on the need for those changes. Even before replacing me as chair, Sen. Wallin made it clear that the best way to improve the lot of the RCMP was to keep saying nice things about it, as though there were not endemic problems within the institution that need to be repaired to regain the public’s trust.
This, to my mind, is something akin to being a climate change denier. When RCMP commissioners are vowing to root out what’s wrong at the RCMP and the chair of this important committee is pretending that there’s nothing wrong at the RCMP, you’ve got a problem.
This isn’t a partisan issue – or shouldn’t be. The committee Sen. Wallin now heads used to be non-partisan, issuing dozens of unanimous reports criticizing Liberal and Conservative governments alike over flaws in Canada’s security system. That kind of constructive criticism has disappeared from the scene.
Last week, at the Senate Committee on the Status of Women, (Liberal) Sen. Grant Mitchell said that he was troubled by the numerous media reports in recent months of sexual harassment of female officers. This is the very issue that new RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said so vehemently that he is determined to resolve when his appointment was announced last month.
Sen. Mitchell asked that the Status of Women Committee examine this issue – something he said Senator Wallin’s committee had refused to do when he asked it to.
Responding to Sen. Mitchell’s allegation in last week’s Hill Times, Senator Wallin said that “Under the Liberals, the committee spent nearly four years studying the RCMP, so the Force has had no lack of attention. My feeling remains that too often this ended up besmirching the reputations of the many by associating them with the sins of a few. That will not be my approach."
When Sen. Mitchell raised the issue in the Senate two days later, Sen. Wallin went on to say: “I sat on the committee when it was chaired by one of our colleagues, Colin Kenny, when a final version of a report on the RCMP came out that was indeed attacking the organization. One of the suggested titles at the time, or certainly a phrase that the chair approved of, referred to the RCMP as a rent-a-wreck of a police force. That was not approved by the Conservative members on the committee. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, Liberal members of the Senate, that summer, after the session ended and we rose, prepared their "own report" based on information that was collected by the Senate and put a report out that they called a ‘Liberal report,’ which made many accusations and I think some unfair commentary about our national police force.”
There is one smidgeon of truth to what Sen. Wallin says: the six Liberal members of the committee did indeed put out a position paper on the RCMP after Prime Minister Harper had prorogued Parliament. That position paper was called “Toward a Red Serge Revival.” Far from “besmirching” the RCMP, it focused on four areas essential to RCMP reform: better governance; more funding; better oversight, and the hiring of more women and minorities. The only reason the Liberal members were forced to release their own report is that the committee had not issued any report – new appointments to the committee, ordered up by Conservative hard-liners, had deadlocked it in partisan bickering.
The biggest untruth to emerge was Sen. Wallin’s assertion that I, as chair, favoured calling the RCMP “a rent-a-wreck of a police force.” The truth is that an early draft of the moribund report had mentioned a claim by journalist Paul Palango – a long-time critic of the RCMP – that the force was, to his mind, just that. However, neither Liberals nor Conservatives on the committee wanted any reference to Mr. Palango’s observations included in the report, and the phrase was dropped early on – never to be mentioned again. Nobody ever suggested that it be in the title, and if Sen. Wallin were to release in camera transcripts of the meetings, as she could if she wished to, that would be evident.
Mr. Palango’s primary reason for using the word “rent” so dismissively is that the RCMP hires itself out to do contract policing in provinces, territories and municipalities. Mr. Palango doesn’t like that practice; I certainly do.
I have defended contract policing over and over again, when I was chair of the committee, and ever since. To have Sen. Wallin suggest that as chair of the committee I wanted to put out a report calling the RCMP “a rent-a-wreck” of a police force is not just to turn my words upside down, but to turn my very impassioned convictions upside down.
The RCMP is underfunded. The RCMP is short-staffed. The RCMP is stressed to the level of distress. And the RCMP is not always a fair place to work – especially for women and minorities.
Sen. Wallin may not want to take on all of these issues.
But perhaps she could just do something useful to combat these problems by telling her boss, the prime minister, that Canada’s police force could dearly use some of the money that he is funneling into the expansion Canada’s prison system. That, she should know, would be advice of a type that is critical to any democracy: constructive criticism.