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Thursday, December 10, 2009

EDITORIAL: Mounties do, indeed, face a 'defining moment'

December 10, 2009
The Montreal Gazette

Canadians want to love the Mounties. The force is a national symbol, after all, combining a hint of our history, a sense of the country's scope, and even a flash of colour with their scarlet tunics.

But the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's musical ride and proud history have been eclipsed by a short amateur video. Aired countless times on news broadcasts, the clip shows Robert Dziekanski's last living moments, at Vancouver Airport in 2007.

For anyone who has seen the video, the two inquiries into the Polish man's tasering and death are almost superfluous. The inquiry under retired judge Thomas Braidwood seems certain to result in harsh words for the Mounties involved, and for the force's hierarchy. And this week a separate report from the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP had just such criticism.

Paul Kennedy, chairman of the complaints body, fired both barrels at the force and at Commissioner William Elliott. Kennedy and Elliott have clashed before, and Kennedy's mandate, expiring at year's end, will not be renewed by the federal government. Artfully, he left behind a time bomb for Elliott: How the force responds to his inquiry and Justice Braidwood's will "represent a defining moment in the history of the RCMP," he said.

Given Kennedy's employment status, this prediction would seem malicious, except that it is so obviously correct. The Dziekanski tragedy, and the ensuing attempt at cover-up, were so obviously shameful that they can't be glossed over or brushed aside.

Kennedy did go undiplomatically too far, we suspect, in attacking Elliott. The RCMP commissioner had Kennedy's report six weeks ago; that he has not yet commented on it is "bizarre to the extreme," Kennedy said. That's unfair. Elliott has a responsibility to the members of the force, and decorum: there's no reason he should not wait until the Braidwood report comes out to speak up about all this.

However, the "defining moment" warning was fair - and serious. Remember that Elliott, a civilian outsider, was appointed to the position two years ago next week after a string of scandals and errors in the force, including the Maher Arar affair and some dodgy pension-fund dealings. His mandate then was to shake up senior management, end the stultifying internal culture which put a premium on cover-up, and generally restore public pride in the institution.

So far Canadians have seen little of that. True, reforming an institution with the size and duties of a national police force is not a matter for any short period of time. But the Dziekanski case, and that video, have punched Canadians in the gut about the RCMP's problems in a way pension-fund irregularities never could. Kennedy's "defining moment" prediction is just about impossible to deny.

Around the world, too many peoples live in disdain, contempt, or fear of their national police forces. Canadians have usually been proud of the Mounties - and want to be proud of them again. Commissioner Elliott has got a lot of work to do.

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