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Back in the saddle?

At the heart of RCMP reforms is a new national security unit

From Friday's Globe and Mail

The reputation of the Mounties as Canada's national police force has taken a beating in recent years. Our once iconic horsemen have fallen furthest in the public eye thanks to the force's seeming inability to cope with the demands of post-9/11 national security. A summary judgment would be that the RCMP entered the post-9/11 age undertrained, underresourced, ill-equipped and badly led to deal with terrorist and other security threats. A disaster was waiting to happen, and happen it did.

The infamous Project A-O Canada got the wrong man, Maher Arar, and materially assisted the U.S. authorities in their decision to ship him to Syria, where torture awaited him. Other Canadians found themselves facing similar fates while detained in the Middle East, their Syrian jailors plied with Canadian intelligence. Two commissions of inquiry followed – one by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor and one by retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci – and both found serious fault with the Mounties. The RCMP commissioner, Giuliano Zaccardelli, resigned over conflicting testimony on the Arar affair. The government apologized to Mr. Arar and granted him compensation. The Mounties not only had to weather sustained public criticism but also the unprecedented appointment of a civilian, William Elliott, as their new boss.

The Mounties had a new broom and a stable that badly needed cleaning. They also had some marching orders. Judge O'Connor made 24 recommendations, the vast majority of which required changes to the RCMP. The Harper government promised to accept all the recommendations.

This was back in 2006. Since then, a cone of silence has descended over RCMP reform. Recently, however, a “trust us” approach has begun to give way to something a little more democratically robust – “show us.” The RCMP has allowed a first peek inside its new world of national security.

At the heart of the RCMP reforms is the effort to create a new powerhouse at headquarters in Ottawa – the National Security Criminal Investigations directorate. NSCI will be an acronym to keep an eye on. If it works, look out for future TV episodes to give The Border a run for its money.

The driving ideas behind NSCI are centralization and control. In theory, the new national security unit will maintain a tight grip on all national security investigations across the country to ensure compliance with the law, that the matter being investigated is properly within the Mounties' mandate, and that information is properly collected, analyzed and shared (especially across borders) – and to exercise maximum quality control. All of this is a direct response to Judge O'Connor's report and, as a reform, is timely and to be welcomed.

But, as with all reforms, there lurk potential pitfalls and the dreaded dance of one step forward, two steps back. The RCMP effort is top-down and is bound to create some friction between HQ and its divisions across the country, because those divisions have historically enjoyed considerable freedom in how they run investigations on the ground.

Centralization and control contain their own perils of inducing a degree of risk-aversion as the RCMP tries to mount complex operations against elusive targets. If RCMP field investigators feel headquarters is looking over their shoulders at every move, you can imagine what would happen when careers are on the line and the next commission of inquiry looms or the next set of parliamentary or media floodlights are turned on.

Reforms of this magnitude also need time, strong and sustained leadership, and bags of money. Whether the Mounties will invest in the long haul and whether the government, in tough economic times, will give them the resources to do the job remain open questions.

There are also cultural issues that cut deep and may hold the real keys to success or failure. National security work has to become a career of choice for the RCMP, not a backwater. The Mounties have to be willing to put their best people in charge, and see the benefit of pulling top cops off drugs, biker gangs and major crimes. A culture of reform has to move from the top down into the ranks, right down to the earliest days of recruits at the RCMP's training academy in Regina. Indeed, the RCMP needs to begin to recruit a new generation of Mounties keen on national security work, with the right skill sets and ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity. Smart recruitment and continuous training will be the RCMP's best guarantor of change.

The RCMP has to fix its relationship with its civilian national security counterpart, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Critical to that relationship is a new definition of the RCMP's role as an “intelligence-led” police force that can infuse its investigations with high-quality intelligence without overstepping its mandate or duplicating the work of CSIS. In turn, CSIS has to relinquish old mental habits that elevate “spooks” to a higher plane of existence than “cops” and that seek to always keep “intelligence” out of the courts.

The kinds of reforms under way in the RCMP will ultimately be tested by adversity – the adversity of failure, the challenge of bringing cases to court, and the fickle climate of public opinion. Whatever the outcome, the new-look RCMP looks a whole lot better than the Mounties of pre-9/11 days.

Wesley Wark is security specialist at the University of Toronto

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