December 14, 2009

The thin line of oversight

From Monday's Globe and Mail

When Paul Kennedy says little oversight of the RCMP exists, he's in a position to know. He is the oversight.

Most of what the Mounties do is outside his purview, he said in a tough, but little-noticed, speech last month at the University of Ottawa. National security? Organized crime? The Integrated Market Enforcement Team on corporate crime? These files "appear with the frequency of a lotto 6/49 grand prize winning number," said the chairman of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, an independent agency created by Parliament. Only the Mounties' work as a provincial or municipal police force is watched.

This is a concern for two reasons. The RCMP has shaken the public's trust on many files: the tasering of Robert Dziekanski, the Air-India investigation, the Syrian torture of Maher Arar and the mid-election announcement of an investigation into the Liberal finance minister's office, to name but a few. (All of them except the last one have been the subjects of judicial inquiries.) And the Mounties are once again deeply involved in national security.

Much of that security work was transferred 25 years ago to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, for which there is a strong oversight body, the Security Intelligence Review Committee. CSIS was set up after the McDonald Commission probed the Mounties' security intelligence work, which included 400 break-ins without warrants and the burning of a barn in Quebec.

"For reasons unknown to me," Mr. Kennedy said in his speech, the RCMP complaint commission's "review mandate was significantly weaker than that of SIRC or even of the offices of the Access to Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner and the Auditor-General. One can only assume, since policy-makers and legislative drafters like to copy existing models, that there was a deliberate intention to have a less robust model of review in respect of the RCMP."

He went on: "If this was the goal of the drafters, I can assure you that they were highly successful in that regard. I can with confidence say that little if any of the RCMP's activities in their role as a national police force comes to the attention of the commission."

This is strong stuff, and helps explain why the Conservative government has decided not to renew Mr. Kennedy's contract (much as it didn't renew the contract of Peter Tinsley, the chairman of the Military Police Complaints Commission that is trying to investigate this country's role in the alleged torture of detainees in Afghanistan). Not being renewed is a pretty fair compliment.

What was illegal in the 1960s and 1970s might be legal today. Under a law passed not long after Sept. 11, 2001, designated officers have the right to break the law in limited circumstances, for law-enforcement purposes. "The new reality is that the RCMP in 2009, in order to detect, investigate and disrupt terrorist activity, could do the very activity that helped give rise to the McDonald Commission and the creation of a civilian national security organization. Since December, 2001, the RCMP is authorized in law to burn the barn."

We seem to have come full circle, he says. "Who then can provide either ministers, Parliament or the Canadian public with assurances that these activities are being carried out in a manner consistent with the expectations of Canadians?"

At the moment, no one.